As Seattle’s restaurant scene booms, some local restaurateurs are choosing to open new locations in Tacoma instead, finding rents cheaper, and employees easier to find. But that shift threatens to create the same conditions they’re trying to escape.
TACOMA — If you barhop here, the names on the buildings may make you think you never left Seattle.
There’s a Rhein Haus, an El Borracho and a Red Star Taco Bar, popular Seattle neighborhood hangouts.
There’s another dozen bars and food chains with ties to Seattle that have expanded here in the past 18 months or are planning to do so in coming months.
With a surge of new restaurants around Seattle, some local restaurateurs find that instead of competing with them, it’s just easier to make a buck 35 miles south in Tacoma, where land and labor are cheaper and easier to find. But that shift threatens to create the same conditions they’re trying to escape: rising rents, congestion and gentrification.
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Citywide, 42 new developments are either in the planning or construction stage, most of them mixed commercial-residential projects that rely on restaurants as anchors, the city of Tacoma Community and Economic Development Department reports.
Last year, the city council approved 18 new developments, more than the two previous years combined.
Soon there may be more. In April, Gov. Jay Inslee approved six “Opportunity Zones,” which encourage development through federal tax breaks, including areas especially vulnerable to gentrification such as Hilltop, East Tacoma and the Lincoln District.
Tensions are especially high in Hilltop, a historically black community perched west of downtown that is eyeing the arrival of light rail in 2022. The sight of new restaurants isn’t welcomed by everyone.
Hilltop Kitchen, which boasted a fancy craft-cocktail program, was vandalized with the words “(expletive) you yuppies” and “gentrified” spray-painted across the bar’s facade in 2014.
But that hasn’t dissuaded restaurateurs from seeing opportunity in the City of Destiny. James Weimann, who owns a dozen restaurants in Washington and Colorado including seven in Seattle, believes more of his colleagues will turn to Tacoma as a refuge.
“The cost of real estate in Seattle is somewhat changing the city’s dynamic,” said Weimann, who opened Rhein Haus in Tacoma’s Stadium District last year. He’s also teaming up with another group of Seattle businessmen to open a second branch of Beer Star, a 3,500-square-foot bar, slated to debut in Tacoma’s Jefferson Park in July.
“The building we were able to get for Beer Star … it would be two to three times more expensive in Seattle,” and would have been difficult to break even, Weimann said.
Last year, the opening of his Tacoma branch of Rhein Haus was an eye-opener for the food-and-drink industry across Puget Sound.
In the first month, even on weekdays, about 100 people lined up before doors opened and the bar went through 120 kegs of beer per week. “We had days we had to close the kitchen early because we ran out of food,” Weimann said. “It was crazy.”
That electrifying debut was even the talk of the restaurant community in Seattle, the kind of buzz that the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce couldn’t buy.
“A restaurant opening in Tacoma is still a big deal down there. You can get lost in the fray in Seattle,” said Kittie Davidovich, who owns El Borracho Mexican restaurant Ballard and at Pike Place Market. About two years ago, she backed out of opening on the Amazon campus to instead open along an artsy, Sixth Avenue section of Tacoma.
This summer, one of the big openings is Wooden City, a New American restaurant in downtown Tacoma from Abe Fox and Jon Green, the latter a cook who has done stints at famed The French Laundry in Napa and Gramercy Tavern in New York City. Both recently relocated from Seattle to Tacoma.
Fox said the decision to open in Tacoma was a no-brainer considering their restaurant sits along Pacific Avenue, one of Tacoma’s busiest barhopping stretches and costs only $15 per square foot to rent.
The going rate for many vacant restaurant spaces in Ballard, Fremont and Capitol Hill is more than $30 per square foot. At the real-estate rate in Seattle, the economic arithmetic wouldn’t work when he’s charging around $20 for entrees in a 49-seat bistro, Fox said.
These days, Wooden City has plenty of company in Tacoma. Seattle chains Top Pot Doughnuts, Elemental Wood Fired Pizza and Sam Choy’s Poke to the Max have opened shops here. The owners of Bitterroot BBQ in Ballard also may be closing in on a deal to expand. Its Ballard neighbor Locus Cider has already signed a lease.
Some of these owners have the same gripes raised by many Capitol Hill and South Lake Union restaurateurs, who struggle to find kitchen help. The difference: They’re fed up, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
So south on Interstate 5 they go. According to the state Employment Security Department, the food-service labor shortage isn’t as pronounced in Pierce County as it is in King County. The state drew that conclusion based on a ratio of the number of job openings to the number of job seekers.
“The labor-force shortage in Seattle is mostly in the kitchen — from dishwashers to chefs. Even our dishwashers make $16 an hour,” Weimann said. “We are paying up to $20 an hour. There are corporate restaurants coming to Seattle and poaching our kitchen staff and offering more than $20 an hour. With the volume and the prices we charge per plate, we have to cap it at some stage. We can’t be charging $23 for a burger and keep our doors open.”
In April, Billy Beckett, of Red Star in Fremont, expanded with a bigger branch in Tacoma and soon noticed the difference between the two cities by the number of pings in his inbox. He was flooded with job candidates for line- and prep-cook positions (pay $13 to $14 an hour) at his Tacoma restaurant.
In comparison, he would usually get “just a trickle of responses, maybe one or two a day,” at most, if he had an opening at his Fremont bar.
The Seattle dining scene is so oversaturated, “there aren’t enough asses to plant in the seats and there aren’t enough employees to staff the restaurants,” said restaurateur Peter Levy. He runs four Seattle restaurants and plans to operate at least four more in Tacoma. Two opened in 2016 (Cooks Tavern and Brewers Row). Two to three more are coming soon.
After opening the 5 Spot in Queen Anne, the Hi-Life in Ballard, Endolyne Joe’s in West Seattle and TnT Taqueria in Wallingford, Levy found the red tape in Seattle too taxing.
When he was looking to expand three years ago, Levy said the city of Tacoma “assembled the heads of eight different agencies — sewer, water, community relations for a preliminary meeting.
“In Seattle you pay thousands of dollars for that and a year to schedule meetings with all those department heads because (Seattle) is so under the water” with all the applications, Levy said.
Patrick Haight, a longtime bartender at the now defunct Tini Bigs in Queen Anne, didn’t want any of that headache. He bought a sports bar last summer near downtown Tacoma and turned it into a dive, Camp Bar.
“You don’t have the density or the foot traffic like in Seattle, but I think that will change in two to four years,” Haight said. “Right now is a fantastic time to open in Tacoma if you want to get in on the ground floor.”