As the state-mandated closure of bars and restaurant dining rooms approaches the one-month mark, Seattle’s eating establishments are having a tough time.
To help, the city offered 250 grants of $10,000 each to small businesses. Nearly 9,000 applied, many of them restaurants in the Chinatown International District, Rainier Valley, the University District and Belltown.
Of the successful applicants, did the grant make a dent in their stack of bills? Will they reopen? How far does $10,000 go in the current economic climate? We checked in with three restaurants that received grants to see how they’re doing.
Hood Famous Cafe + Bar
Just two months ago, at a time when foot traffic in the Chinatown International District had dipped due to xenophobic fears over the coronavirus, this Filipino bakery actually saw a spike in customers because baker and co-owner Chera Amlag was a James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: Northwest & Pacific, said co-owner Geo Quibuyen.
Any plan they had to piggyback on that accolade was dashed a few weeks later when Gov. Jay Inslee closed all restaurant dining rooms. Just like that, the couple, like thousands of other owners of bars and bistros in the Seattle area, struggled to make ends meet.
The $10,000 grant covers rent at their Chinatown and Ballard locations and also saved the jobs of three employees — a baker and managers— so the bakery could launch a dessert-delivery service, Quibuyen said.
“Yep, we, literally Chera and I and the cafe manager, we go around and drop off [the cheesecakes and other desserts] at people’s houses and apartments,” Quibuyen said.
But after two days of trial and error, they put the brakes on their delivery service to “retool.” They need to plot more efficient routes and boundaries, work out the logistics of “no contact” delivery and set a higher minimum purchase amount for delivery orders.
“We knew it was going to be ambitious and stressful,” said Quibuyen, but the up-to-30% service charge that delivery apps mandated was too high for them to make any money selling baked goods.
On their inaugural delivery day, three staffers needed 14 hours to deliver 100 orders. Quibuyen and his wife partnered up, reasoning it was more efficient if one could drive while the other hopped out to drop off desserts. By the second day, they discovered they could cover more ground if they split up and ran separate routes.
Live and learn, he said. “We had never done the takeout model before. There have never been more boxes and packaging material in our cafe than now.”
The couple is resigned to this new reality — at least for the foreseeable future. No business owner really believes that the restaurant ban will be lifted on May 4, Quibuyen said.
Hood Famous plans to relaunch its delivery service in the coming weeks.
This artsy coffeehouse/bar in the University District area has suffered through so much adversity, it’s hard to recall when it has gone through a year without turmoil.
Cafe Racer was the scene of a shooting eight years ago when a mentally ill man opened fire and killed four customers. It closed in 2017, a casualty of the financial difficulty of trying to make an art gallery and bar self-sustaining.
But Jeff Ramsey and his wife, Cindy Anne, brought it back to life. They purchased the 1,800-square-foot space two years ago and hosted poetry readings and jazz nights and continued to showcase local artists on its walls.
The couple could make the business numbers work because Ramsey is the “free labor” as cook, bartender, server, bookkeeper, janitor and private events planner — that was, until last fall, when he fell and broke his neck and was out of commission. Ramsey had to hire an employee ($22.50 an hour after overtime) to help run the daily operations while he recovered, and Cafe Racer went into debt again.
On March 5, the couple celebrated clearing Cafe Racer’s debt thanks to $40,000 in donations from the community. Ten days later, Inslee shut down bars and restaurants due to the pandemic, and without revenue coming in, Cafe Racer will again be in the hole.
“OK universe, what is the lesson here?” quipped Ramsey, adding that he has to laugh to keep from crying. “It’s been surreal.”
The $10,000 grant from the city of Seattle has helped them catch up on their bills — rent, liability insurance, utilities and other expenses — during the closure.
Ramsey vows Cafe Racer will reopen, saying it’s too important of a community service and an incubator for the music and art scene to shut down.
Greg Wetzel, who owns the cafe with his wife, Jing, has already burned through most of the $10,000 grant to catch up three months’ worth of bills.
Long before the first death was attributed to the coronavirus in King County, their business had already plummeted due to xenophobia, he said.
In late January, two customers walked in and noticed that Zheng Cafe featured the signature sesame paste noodle from Wuhan, the Chinese city that was at the center of the novel coronavirus outbreak. The customers asked Wetzel’s wife, Jing, if she came from that region. When she answered yes, they turned around and left.
In a separate incident, someone threw a rock and shattered their front window. “That’s another $1,500 to fix,” Wetzel said.
The $10,000 city grant, along with a $2,500 grant from Amazon, allowed the Wetzels to make good with landlords, trash collectors and food vendors. But any joy was short-lived.
“The 15th of the month is creeping up, and I will have to pay all those bills again,” Wetzel said.
They plan to reopen. One advantage: They won’t have high labor costs since he and his wife are the only employees. They will focus solely on takeout and use delivery apps since the Amazon lunch rush makes up the majority of their business.
They won’t pivot to another Chinese cuisine or hide that they prepare dishes from Wuhan.
“This is who we are,” Wetzel said.