COVID-19 restrictions for restaurants and bars in Seattle are over at last. It feels, as Renee Erickson says further down in this story, unreal: No more masks required (except, importantly, if you’re not vaccinated). Indoor seating allowed back to normal times literally overnight, from only 50% to full capacity. Social distancing all done, so those barstools that have been turned upside down for more than a year now await … don’t they?
Of course, there is cause for celebration, but don’t expect places to reopen fully right away — and things will be different out there. With staff hard to come by, just getting reservations may be tough. Businesswise, the restaurant industry remains a tightrope walk for many, now and for the foreseeable future.
Here are five local chef/owners on how this pivotal moment feels, the work that lies ahead and the understanding they hope to gain from those seated at the tables and on the other side of the bar.
Brandon Pettit of Delancey and Essex in Ballard and Dino’s Tomato Pie on Capitol Hill
“Reopening feels overwhelming and frightening and hard — it’s like opening a new business in a new city that you’ve never been to.
“Nobody knows what to charge for things. No one really knows how much a pint of beer should be — I’ve seen from $6 to $8.75. And I’ve seen Craigslist ads for cooks from $17 to $32 an hour. Like some people are stuck in the past and other people are guessing. [Customers] are going to be shocked at prices. And they’ll keep going up over the next year, because people are scared to charge too much right now. The cost of labor has doubled in the last few years, and costs of staple items like oil have soared due to COVID. Even before COVID, prices had not been raised enough to keep up with cost increases. Now restaurants don’t have a choice — they need to raise prices to survive.
“Staffing is the hardest it has ever been. We had zero responses from Craigslist and Poached, and only a few on Facebook until we paid to boost our listing. Even then, I had two Mondays in a row where we set up multiple interviews, and nobody showed up. After the first week of no-shows, I set up 12 interviews for the following week, and still nobody came.
“We need to switch both Delancey and Dino’s down to five days per week, because we were not able to find enough staff to open seven days, even at $25 to $30-plus per hour plus health insurance for back of house. Essex will only be open Fridays and Saturdays at first, and we needed to switch to counter service — and we won’t have any food at Essex, because we couldn’t hire enough staff. Our Delancey menu will be slightly smaller as well, because we will have a skeleton crew.
“It’s a perfect storm. People, including small business owners, being priced out of living in Seattle. Young people no longer working due to stress or college admissions. Immigrants coming at lower numbers and following construction jobs. Service people switching to the marijuana industry. Amazon poached a bunch of service workers during COVID. Many switched to — and enjoyed the stability of —grocery work. Many, many people moved out of Seattle or went back to school, etc. Most staff I laid off moved — most out of state.
“Another thing I’ve already seen is people mad at businesses for removing mask restrictions for staff. Like it’s unsafe or reckless. Yet to me, there isn’t a choice, because there’s a gross power dynamic if staff is forced to wear masks but customers are told they don’t need to.
“Patrons need to be kind and understanding. It’s difficult to comprehend how terrible this last year has been for the restaurant industry — even the places that are seemingly busy doing takeout — and difficult to comprehend how hard people are working to survive.”
Jamie Boudreau of Canon on Capitol Hill
“We don’t have an opening date yet. We are still trying to get staff. We still need to hire four bartenders, two servers, three cooks, two kitchen assistants. We will not interview anyone who is not vaccinated. I normally get 150 to 200 resumes within 24 hours of an ad. I’ve taken out four ads and over the course of a week, I’ve gotten 10 candidates.
“We usually have 60 cocktails on the menu. We might do 30 on the first menu to start off. You just can’t come in here and bartend. It is way too complicated. Once everyone is hired, it’s two weeks of training and a week of test dinners and then we will open.
“What I would tell people is ‘pretend we are a brand new restaurant.’ We are working out the kinks. Everyone is green and unsure of their surroundings. Things will be slightly slower at first. We just need to be kinder to one another and be more patient. We live in a world of instant gratification. But with a new staff, it might take just a bit to get us to where we were.”
Rich Fox, operating owner of Weimann Maclise Restaurants (including Sabine, Macleod’s, Stoneburner, Stoup Kenmore, two Poquitos locations and three branches of Rhein Haus in Washington)
“I’m anxious, nervous and excited. We have been fighting this virus for so long, and the idea that there’s no more restrictions has not settled in yet.
“The first goal is to open the bar tops. It’s where people are excited to be because they had not been allowed to be there since the pandemic started — being able to sit at the bar and interact with friends and the bartender, I know people are champing at the bit to be there.
“Unfortunately, not all of our restaurants are in the position to fling the doors open and operate at the same old hours. We are all dealing with staffing issues.
I just surveyed our general managers, asking them, ‘Can you open your bar tops? Can you add table capacity? Can you expand hours? Can you expand days of operations? Are you ready to do events — both business and private parties?'”
“We want to be open seven days a week. But in terms of hours and days of operation, every location will be different. It will be based on how many people our GMs and chefs can hire.”
“We’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing — unvaccinated staff members will still be required to wear a mask until further notice and vaccinated staff members will need to provide proof of vaccination to go maskless, but are obviously welcome to continue to wear a mask if they prefer. Guests will not have to show proof of vaccination if they are not wearing a mask, but we will continue to have signs speaking to the governor’s policy.”
Dun Liu, co-owner of Sizzling Pot King in the Chinatown-International District and in Bellevue
“Because of the labor shortage, we are still facing challenges to reopen. Our Chinatown location is open six days a week. But we need another line cook and two servers to be able to open seven days a week. Our Bellevue location is takeout only because we are understaffed for all positions — we need a chef, a line cook, a part-time dishwasher and two servers.
“We are offering 15% higher wages than before the pandemic. For entry level jobs, we pay $4 to $5 higher per hour than the minimum wage rate. Still, it’s so tough to find help. We require our employees to be fully vaccinated. I don’t have a mask requirement for staff, but that’s not a problem. In talking to my employees, they all said they will wear masks. I’m happy about that. At the end of the day, it’s their health and safety.”
Renee Erickson of Sea Creatures (The Walrus and the Carpenter, Bateau, Great State Burger and more across Seattle)
“This all feels surreal and strange. I am pretty used to masks! It also feels exciting. I am looking forward to not having to think quite so much about COVID restrictions. Love that I can travel again. Love that I can gather easily with family and friends again.
“Some [of our] restaurants may be up to full capacity within a couple more weeks. Other restaurants may not get to 100% this year. We still have four spots — about a quarter of our locations — that are closed entirely. Another quarter are open limited hours or limited days. None of our locations are currently staffed to host at full capacity. I am hoping we can get open everywhere before summer is over. Hiring is really uphill — always, but right now, especially. We’ve got a long way to go. The hiring squeeze spreads current staff thin, too. Balancing taking care of everyone while also trying to get hired and open in time so we can get our [Paycheck Protection Program] aid forgiven is where we are at right now.
“The vast majority of our staff has been vaccinated. We are going to continue to follow King County Public Health guidelines for restaurants. This means that fully vaccinated employees no longer have to mask. This applies to guests as well. Non-vaccinated employees must mask, as must non-vaccinated guests.
“The folks hosting you are working hard. They are likely new to their job. If they’re not new to their job, they probably lived through the last year and a half as an ‘essential worker’ — meaning they worked directly with a mostly great but sometimes truly terrible public during the pandemic. It is also probably really hot. Everyone wants to eat out right now, but there are not a lot of seats, and there are not a lot of hospitality workers. Be kind. Be courteous. Assume the best. Have fun, but don’t be a jerk.
“My hope is that we will all have a little more appreciation and gratitude around it all. We’ve had that absence that has hopefully made the heart grow fonder.”
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.