The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Weary restaurateurs weathered the spring dining room shutdown and sighed in relief when dining rooms reopened this summer and the city pushed through permits for expanded outdoor seating. But fall brought rain and lower temperatures, which made outdoor dining trickier. Now, as winter descends, another coronavirus spike has forced Gov. Jay Inslee to shut down indoor dining again.

Inslee announced Sunday that, effective at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18, indoor dining at restaurants throughout Washington state is banned through Dec. 14 as the state tries to curb the spread of COVID-19 through the looming holiday season. Outdoor dining is still allowed, with party size capped at five.

“What we’re saying is that it’s too dangerous right now for Washingtonians in any environment to be sitting across the table from each other with someone who is not in your household and hasn’t been quarantined,” Inslee said during his Sunday news conference to announce the new restrictions. “We’re facing a third wave that’s trending to be more dangerous than any we’ve seen before. Inaction is not an option. We have to take bold decisive action.”

The governor also expressed empathy for restaurant owners and said that to help business owners, the state is committing another $50 million in aid that will be disbursed in some combination of grants and loans.

Nonetheless, the second dining room shutdown is another tough blow to restaurants in a challenging year. Forced to adapt to survive, restaurateurs have come up with increasingly creative business plans over the past few months, and they say this experience in alternative ventures will serve them well as they pivot yet again to get through a second shutdown and hope to resume operations on the other side.

Getting a little help

For Chris Jones, co-owner of Screwdriver Bar and Belltown Yacht Club in Belltown, the spike in cases was all he needed to enforce his own shutdown order.

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The bar had been open selling cocktail kits and hosting pop-ups over the summer, and hosted a virtual concert at Belltown Yacht Club in partnership with KEXP host Greg Vandy and a San Francisco-based company called IN.LIVE, streaming live as Naked Giants and Acid Tongue played from the empty venue. Screwdriver Bar reopened to patrons in mid-October. However, after coronavirus cases spiked with over 3,000 cases reported in Washington on Nov. 11, Jones and his business partner, Dave Flatman, released a statement on the bar’s Instagram account announcing they would be closing Sunday, Nov. 22, for “a few months.”

In an email Jones wrote, “It’s heartbreaking the amount of hand-holding and how many stern conversations we have to have on a daily basis to wear masks, stay socially distanced and simply follow our rules. … it’s exhausting and discouraging. We’re trying to act as leaders in the community and the scene by doing the right call. Our hearts want to stay open but everything else screams close for a bit.”

He says they’ll most likely host some pop-ups and possibly even another virtual concert over the winter. They hope to reopen in February. Financially, Jones says this is only possible because “we have a great relationship with our landlord and he’s working with us.”

Jen Doak is the owner of Brimmer & Heeltap in Ballard. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Jen Doak is the owner of Brimmer & Heeltap in Ballard. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Diversifying your options

Over in Ballard, Brimmer & Heeltap owner Jen Doak is proud of how nimbly she’s switched gears multiple times this year. And while Doak says a second dining room shutdown will definitely hurt her bottom line, she’s better positioned to wait out this shutdown now than she was the first time.

Shortly after dining rooms shut across the city in mid-March, Doak took a job in the wine section at the Ballard Market because “I knew if I could get a job to help cover some of my personal expenses it would take away the money for the operating expenses for the restaurant,” she said.

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While working that job, she realized how good it was to see her community shopping at the market and after a few months, turned her attention back to her restaurant and found different ways to keep things going. 

At the end of April, Doak started the Common Cents Wine Club, a three-or-six-bottle monthly club that picks up at the restaurant. It has now grown to nearly 200 members.

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Over the summer, Doak and her team started offering dinners for pickup over weekends and, in July, opened Red Arrow, a coffee shop situated in an outbuilding and outdoor space at Brimmer & Heeltap that was previously available for private parties. For Doak, opening Red Arrow wasn’t about filling a hole in the neighborhood — Slate Roasters has a location across the street — rather it was about “how can I get through this,” Doak says.

Limited dinner service resumed in the restaurant in August, but as summer turned to fall, Doak knew it was time to rethink things again. In an attempt to get people to dine at the restaurant in the winter, Doak introduced raclette dinners on Sunday evenings. 

The raclette platter served at Brimmer & Heeltap in Ballard. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
The raclette platter served at Brimmer & Heeltap in Ballard. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
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The $40 dinner includes turmeric ginger tea and a platter of cheeses, cured meats, potatoes, fruit, bread and pickles; the unique experience piqued people’s interest and got some to come back to the restaurant — Doak says they took care to implement coronavirus safety measures according to state health guidelines, including temperature checks, sanitizing stations and a two-hour time limit at tables.

“It’s super fun, people are leaving full and they feel like it’s different. Some people have had some sort of melty cheese, some haven’t, they don’t know raclette is a verb and a noun,” Doak says.  

Doak now has a few more income streams than she did before the first dining room shutdown: she’ll continue to operate the Red Arrow coffee shop, offer takeout meals and outdoor dining (yes, you can get the raclette dinner outdoors, too!), cocktails and the monthly Common Cents Wine Club. Yet, it’s still been an uphill battle. “As a whole, with all of our combined efforts (coffee, dinner, wine club), we are still about $500 a day from break even,” Doak says, citing competitive wages for staff, cost of goods, equipment rental and utilities among the reasons that break-even number remains elusive. 

But, she adds, when it’s safe again, “we’ll be waiting on the other end” to welcome diners indoors.  

While Doak diversified and went casual, Toshiyuki Kawai, chef and owner of Beacon Hill restaurant iconiq leaned into the idea of small party sizes and single-group dining. 

Beginning in late August, he started hosting one party per evening at his restaurant — that could mean two people for dinner, or 10. 

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“A lot of people were emailing saying ‘I want to celebrate my wife’s birthday,’ those people didn’t care how much they spent,” Kawai said.

Prices began at $150 per person, with a minimum of $400. To stay within state health regulations with a space that seats 46 in pre-COVID times, Kawai capped group size at 10.

Kawai also began offering meal kits in March, initially to sell out existing product. He later progressed to offering three-course menus for about $23, and hosting monthly pop-ups with multicourse seasonally-inspired meals that almost always consisted of menu items he had never made before — both for takeout only.

“During this COVID time, it’s nice to be motivated. This kind of opportunity gives me extra motivation to come to the restaurant,” Kawai said. Now, he’ll return to serving takeout meals for the near future. 

Taking the virtual route

Similar to how the Canlis brothers have found success with virtual events like their recent Canlis Community College venture, iconic fine-dining destination El Gaucho and other restaurants under the same Fire & Vine umbrella also experimented creatively with various virtual events to stay solvent. 

El Gaucho restaurants began offering Celebration Boxes complete with steak and Caesar salad for two, even for guests not comfortable dining in. (Courtesy Fire & Vine Hospitality)
El Gaucho restaurants began offering Celebration Boxes complete with steak and Caesar salad for two, even for guests not comfortable dining in. (Courtesy Fire & Vine Hospitality)
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In August, El Gaucho and Aerlume introduced virtual wine dinners and “Celebration Packages,” offering chateaubriand or surf and turf and Caesar salad plus dessert for two for $160.

The wine dinners pair a Fire & Vine chef such as Aerlume’s Maggie Trujillo with a Washington winemaker. Participants pick up a box of ingredients — from a full dinner to elaborate cheese pairings — plus wine and connect to a live call to watch Trujillo and the winemaker talk shop.

“For us, there’s a little bit of an innovative piece, we always want to push ourselves to be fun and passionate in what we do … We’ve pivoted but we’re true to who we are,” Trujillo said.

El Gaucho also stumbled upon a surprising source of income: the ol’ company gala. Over the summer, Chad Mackay, CEO of Fire & Vine Hospitality, the group that owns four El Gaucho locations and Aerlume, says he fielded many calls from local nonprofits looking for meal options for their annual fundraisers that had become virtual events. 

For instance: Mary’s Place, which provides safe shelter for women, children and families as they transition out of homelessness. For its SHINE Virtual Gala, Mary’s Place worked with El Gaucho, Ethan Stowell’s How to Cook a Wolf, Marjorie and Din Tai Fung’s Bellevue location to put together more than 300 meals to pair with the event.

“We worked with restaurant owners and chefs to ensure [their operating and food] costs would be covered, and they all gave back the proceeds [from the dinners],” said Mary’s Place Executive Director Marty Hartman. “It was an incredible gift from this community of restaurants who are struggling themselves.” 

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The proceeds from dinners combined with a silent and live auction totaled $1.3 million, with more matching funds coming in for Mary’s Place.

El Gaucho has provided meals to a half-dozen nonprofit events over the summer and fall and has also been working with corporate clients on virtual holiday dinners and events. 

Yet, even though Mackay says the El Gaucho team became “pretty adept at responding to constant change,” they’re still going to struggle with a second dining room shutdown. “While this is not sustainable for the long term, we will keep pushing to make it through by being fanatical about safety for our guests and team, and offering options for in-home dining, retail steak and wine sales and virtual events,” Mackay said. “But without any federal program for the industry and a better safety net for workers, another prolonged shutdown would be catastrophic for the industry and employees.”