What does the future hold for the Seattle restaurant scene, given the coronavirus crisis? No one’s got a crystal ball, but five chefs — ranging from Chong Boon Ooi of the tiny Capitol Hill ramen shop Ooink to Ethan Stowell of the major restaurant group of the same name — took time to weigh in on what direction they see things taking, as well as what life’s like for them right now.
MARIA HINES of Tilth in Wallingford
On getting scrappy: “We couldn’t even afford to turn the heat on at Tilth on those cold days in March. We were working in jackets and beanies. We emptied out and unplugged refrigerators we didn’t need to save energy. We only turn on critical lights that we need to work. … I stopped paying myself when all this went down so I could keep four team members on and pay them. I’ve been living off my meager retirement savings to fight to keep my restaurant alive.”
On her team: “No operator operates alone. We made a decision as a team to stay open, because you can’t do this on your own. And as small as our teams have had to become, we have to always be in sync and believe that what we are doing is important and brings value to our community and to ourselves. We all hold each other up.”
On shaping the city through what’s happening now: “It’s the power of community that will get us through this. … We have an opportunity to try and shape and preserve what businesses we value as part of our future Seattle culture. Do we want big-box stores and megacorporations to represent Seattle? Or do we want local, indie, passion-driven businesses with owners that live in and care about this community that we share together? You will help determine this.
“Every dollar we all spend goes towards supporting what businesses will make it in this city. We gotta think about that every time we pull out our wallet.”
On what we can do: “The biggest help to independent operators right now is to let us keep serving you. Please continue to frequent your favorite places to show solidarity to our community, our indie-minded Seattle culture, and allow us to continue to do what we do best — serve you. Without you, we won’t exist.”
On what the future may hold: “I’m terrified of what the outlook will be for Tilth. But I can’t imagine doing anything other than what we have always done, which is pretty darn simple: Keep the doors open, cook good food, make people happy. If we stay focused on that mission and stay together, I’m hopeful we’ll pull through.”
More on staying positive: “Yes, you betcha, this is a super-[expletive] time right now, and there are plenty of dark days. But staying positive is what will ground us as operators and as a community. I’m thankful to be surrounded by an incredible team. I’m thankful for the community support. I’m thankful that our doors are still open, for now. So many of our brothers and sisters in our community have had to shutter already. It rips my heart out to see all the suffering.
“Every week, my team and I question whether or not we can remain open. It’s our positivity that’s driving us to get up and fight every day. And again, it’s not me who will determine what’s next for Tilth. It’s the team and community’s decision on what Tilth will become after COVID.”
CHONG BOON OOI of Ooink on Capitol Hill
On what it’s like running a restaurant right now: “Bills keep coming, but assistance we’ve applied for has yet to come. We are frustrated but moving on, because what else can we do? Right now, it’s important everyone takes care of themselves and their loved ones. As a business, we will adjust and move on, thinking of other ideas to help us overcome. We are just happy to be lucky and healthy, and that keeps us positive.”
On what the Seattle restaurant scene might be like post-coronavirus crisis: “It’s going to look different. Businesses will open again, but it’s going to be slow, and each business will open in their own way. We have to keep the health and safety of our employees in mind — they are our family, so no matter what others are doing, we plan to only open in a way that we feel comfortable with.”
On what the future might hold: “It’s hard to know … we feel the places that make it through will be those that have an open mind, who are willing and ready to change quickly. As a chef and business owner, I don’t think I can expect things as they once were to return. This will change how many of our customers eat. But we must not complain — we just go on. At the end of the day, one thing that’s for sure is that whatever we sell will be the best quality that we’ve ever had.”
JERRY CORSO of Bar del Corso on Beacon Hill
On what it’s like doing takeout only: “So currently we are running about 30% of our original weekly sales, which maybe seems OK, considering our payroll has also been heavily eviscerated. We are paddling upstream and staying afloat! But really, it is not a long-term, sustainable situation when considering rent, insurance and other fixed-cost bills. … We haven’t seen any federal assistance yet.”
On Gov. Jay Inslee’s reduced-capacity, social distancing reopening scenario: “I would rather keep going on with this format than try to reopen with very reduced seating. I say that because once we reopen, we need to be operating close to our normal capacity in order to keep payroll in check. The challenge for me, and I know for many others around the world, is to figure out this new reality that is not going away anytime soon.”
On the positives right now: “This is the first time in years I have been able to plant a garden, spend the evenings at home with Gina and the kitties, and take MasterClass! Haha. Last Saturday, I spent the entire evening in the backyard sitting by the fire, listening to Mariners rebroadcast of the ’95 season, thinking how weird it feels to be home on a Saturday night.
“Our customers, friends and family have really reached out to support us by ordering takeout, ordering meals for Harborview and food banks, offering their time, buying gift cards and donating to our staff’s GoFundMe to keep everyone on their health care plan. The good in people is shining through all this!”
ETHAN STOWELL of Ethan Stowell Restaurants
On what should be happening right now to help save independent operators: “Change the Paycheck Protection Program payment plan. It doesn’t work for restaurants and general hospitality-based businesses. We’re not like many businesses right now that are actually getting a backlog of work. We’re going to have our customers and sales come back superslow. We need a program that reflects that.”
On the industry’s future: “This pandemic has displayed to everyone worldwide how fragile the restaurant industry actually is. The primary opportunity for positive change is that all of us restaurant owners will hopefully reopen with an eye toward prioritizing planning for long-term sustainability.”
On what the Seattle restaurant scene might look like post-coronavirus crisis: “I think we will see most restaurants come back initially. I hope they all make it, but I worry that business levels will be restricted/limited so much that they won’t make enough money to make it.”
On what kinds of places may make it through: “Restaurants that are good at managing their numbers — it’s not a super romantic time for restaurants right now. Restaurants that have a solid company culture — we feel great about ours and we can’t wait to get everyone back.”
EDOUARDO JORDAN of Salare, JuneBaby and Lucinda Grain Bar in Ravenna
On the whole situation in a nutshell: “There is a lot to be said there and most not good.”
That’s all Jordan wrote, but other chefs’ comments have been edited for space.