Tons of openings, surprising shutdowns, a staff shortage — no wonder local chefs are uneasy. What’s going on?
HAVE YOU BEEN to Opus Co., the new Phinney Ridge restaurant from two chefs who’ve worked with the great Rachel Yang? Eaten Mutsuko Soma’s already-renowned handmade soba at her brand-new Kamonegi in Fremont, where Art of the Table used to be? Been to the new location of beloved Art of the Table, a block away? Tried the imported-from-Hong-Kong, reportedly incredible Betsutenjin Ramen on Capitol Hill? The other three, soon to be four, new ramen places within half a mile of Betsutenjin? The half-dozen new pizzerias nearby? Any of the 35-plus new places specializing in poke in and around Seattle?
If you can’t keep up, it’s not your imagination — restaurants are opening at an unprecedented rate. Over a month and a half this summer, at least 40 debuted hereabout.
If that seems overwhelming, consider this: Seattle had 2,696 restaurants as of the first quarter of 2017, according to Department of Revenue data — up 25 percent from a decade ago. (These DOR figures represent all food service businesses, including full- and quick-service places, trucks and carts, and caterers.) Contrary to the oft-quoted “fact” that half of all restaurants fail in the first year, the Seattle survival rate for restaurants has been hovering around 87 percent a year out (up from 83 percent in 2007). And the numbers for Seattle restaurants’ gross annual sales are startling: up 45 percent over the past decade, to a 2016 total of $2.9 billion. Yes, billion.
It’s very big business, getting bigger all the time. Last year, for the first time, spending on eating out outstripped spending at grocery stores nationwide, according to U.S. Census data. And Seattle’s economy is, as you might have heard, booming. We’ve got more cranes than any other U.S. city, and more new people, too — more than 90,000 newcomers since the start of the decade. And they’ve got to eat, right?
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Why, then, does Seattle’s restaurant scene feel so unstable? Why do chefs speak — quietly or a lot less so — of high anxiety?
SEATTLE RESTAURANT CASUALTIES
“Pivot” has become an industry verb in Seattle, a euphemism for changing a floundering restaurant to something with more prospects for profit instead of shutting it down. And closures, while relatively few and far between, sometimes feel full of portent. A pivot/closure case in point: James Beard Award-winning chef Maria Hines’ Ballard restaurant, Golden Beetle. It served all-organic, adventurous takes on Mediterranean food, but the neighborhood balked at paying more for a gyro. “My heart aches,” she said upon changing the place to a family-friendly, conceptually easy-to-swallow gastropub earlier this year. But she still couldn’t get out from under the debt. Hines closed Golden Beetle this spring to concentrate on her other two restaurants, Tilth and Agrodolce.
Seattle’s finer-dining audience is “spread thinner and thinner,” Hines observes. A top chef’s imprimatur doesn’t have the draw that it used to — too many new places to try, and too much traffic to fight for crosstown “foodie” repeat visits. And to Hines, the rejection of Golden Beetle felt like a rebuke to culinary creativity. She was left with a philosophical question about the city: “As it grows exponentially fast, how do I grow exponentially fast, and hold on to my craft for dear life?”
South Lake Union, the land of Amazon, has been uncharted restaurant territory since the company took hold. Serial failures there have defied all conventional wisdom. Shanik — opened in 2012 by Meeru Dhalwala, half of the team that made Vij’s in Vancouver, B.C., a lines-down-the-block hit — lasted three years. In 2015, chef Travis Kukull’s much-lauded “weird food” lasted seven and a half months at Mollusk, now the very unweird Dexter Brewhouse. Restaurateur Josh Henderson opened five restaurants in S.L.U. last year, then took the radical step of closing three of them. He echoed others on “the pressures of Amazon”: a dearth of dinner business, a desire for quick-serve, a neighborhood still under construction, diners unwilling to travel from elsewhere. “[You] look in the mirror and say, ‘Is this [expletive] working?’ ” Henderson says. “Bank accounts don’t lie; butts in seats don’t lie.”
Elsewhere, new restaurants are cropping up in relatively affordable neighborhoods like Beacon Hill and Columbia City, as rents rise and longtime businesses get pushed out. South Park is set for four debuts in just the next few months, one of them a wine bar.
CASE STUDY: THE NEIGHBORHOOD FAVORITE
Chef Jerry Corso found an old-fashioned place of safety and sanity in the new world of Seattle restaurants: running one restaurant, and running it well. Some might think it shows a lack of ambition or imagination — if you’re successful, why wouldn’t you open another restaurant?
“There has to be a balance,” Corso says. His restaurant, Bar del Corso, is warm and loud, with babies jiggle-walked while people stop at each other’s tables to talk. Corso is there, slicing prosciutto with a dish towel over his shoulder. From the outset, he wanted to avoid any commute. “This is why we are here on Beacon Hill, where our home is,” he says. Sometimes, in summer or fall, the desserts include fruit from the trees in his yard — polenta cake with plums, for example.
Bad traffic citywide makes regulars even more loyal — why hassle with driving when your neighborhood favorite is right there? Bar del Corso closes down for rest two weeks a year. “The best part is that when we come back, they” — the regulars — “miraculously come back, too.” Corso’s also thankful for the fact that on Beacon Hill, there’s still parking for those who come from afar.
“There are so few moments when I question, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” Corso says. Those moments come when he needs new staff, up against a shortage of labor. But just one restaurant means fewer workers, especially when one of them is you. “This is a hard profession!” he says. “But with all the long hours, it is very rewarding when it all works right.” For him, one restaurant works right, and for his customers, it feels right.
How many poke places and pizzerias can one city, no matter how booming, support? Are some corrections inevitable? Restaurateur Brandon Pettit says, “Capitol Hill needed five more pizza places, and it got, like, 10.” With no way of knowing what was to come, his place, Dino’s, became part of the Great Pizza Rush of 2016. He says restaurants in the neighborhood have endured hitherto unknown unpredictability — frantically busy nights followed by practically dead ones, making staffing and ordering a nightmare. It’s evened out, he says, and Dino’s is doing fine (probably because the thick-crust square pie is excellent). But with old buildings being torn down and new ones not yet fully built or occupied, he sees the increased number of restaurants way out ahead of the number of hungry mouths — maybe five years ahead. As with the brand-new neighborhood that is South Lake Union, it’s ground that feels far from solid.
Nationwide, the health of the industry is a topic of contentious debate. “There’s a Massive Restaurant Industry Bubble, and It’s About to Burst,” a Thrillist headline proclaimed at the end of last year. In July, the issue still boiled, with a Washington Post article refuting, “Another restaurant closes. That doesn’t mean the industry is headed for a crash.”
And larger economic uncertainties loom. “Seattle’s boom-and-bust cycle may not be behind us,” Seattle Times columnist Jon Talton wrote this summer. Then Moody’s rated Amazon as the weakest of all the big U.S. retailers. Some chefs talk privately about the potential for restaurant carnage if, or when, the economy tanks, or even hiccups. The often-invoked razor-thin profit margins of the industry leave little room for hard times.
CASE STUDY: THE BUSINESSWOMAN
Chef Monica Dimas could be running any kind of restaurant she wanted. She’s worked in some of Seattle’s best kitchens, cooking Vietnamese at Monsoon, Italian at Spinasse, French at Le Pichet and new American at mkt. But when she struck out on her own in 2015, fine dining did not call to her. “I’m just not interested in that world anymore — I still frequent them, but owning that kind of place doesn’t really fit my vibe,” Dimas says. High-end takes capital, and she wanted to be beholden to no one. “I don’t have investors,” she says. “It’s just me.” But, she notes, “I can be small and still offer my employees health insurance and provide a good work environment.” She stayed low to the ground, and she started with food close to her heart.
Inspired by the food her mom made when she was growing up in Eastern Washington, Dimas’ Tortas Condesa makes drippy, delicious Mexican sandwiches to go, popular with a late-night, stagger-up, Capitol Hill crowd. Her Neon Taco (with phenomenal guacamole) is lodged inside the bar Nacho Borracho, as a collaboration with Rachel Marshall. She branched out with Sunset Fried Chicken Sandwiches, ensconced in the corner of the Capitol Hill venue of Rachel’s Ginger Beer. With baker Molly Westman, she has recently adopted another unconventional spot: a walk-up window on Madison that’ll be home to Westman’s Bagels. And a (bigger) Lil Neon Taco is in the works a mile away on First Hill.
Dimas’ trajectory has included some backtracking. She threw in the towel on a branch of Sunset Fried Chicken in Portland, in order “to stay afloat and not completely dissolve my other businesses trying to keep this one alive.” Now one sanity-saver in a city with traffic like Seattle’s is that all her places are within a mile of each other. “Logistics are so huge,” she says. “It’s just nice to be able to walk from business to business, and chat with my employees, and see what’s up.
“This is my turf.”
And she sees what the neighborhood wants — food that inspires cravings, made with good ingredients, at an affordable price. In new Seattle, it feels like a much safer bet than something fancy.
THE LABOR PROBLEM
“Why Are So Many Seattle Restaurants Closing Lately?” asked a plaintive headline in Seattle Magazine, way back in 2015. The article pointed to four closures over four months, with an air of alarm that seems quaint — at this writing, the most recent Seattle Times tally of local restaurant closures was six over about two months, with 48 openings during the same period. The article speculated about Seattle’s impending $15-an-hour minimum wage, touching off a sky-is-falling firestorm in the conservative blogosphere. When contacted for comment, the chef/owners of the restaurants in question said none of the closures was due to the minimum wage.
But restaurateurs now face a real wage-related crisis: a shortage of workers, here and nationwide. Job sites like Poached are sellers’ markets, with hundreds of openings — sometimes in desperate all-caps — for bartenders, line cooks, dishwashers and more. Some local chefs report that to even have a chance of hiring someone, starting wages must exceed the minimum. (Only some large employers in the city have already reached $15, which, for a 40-hour week, is just above $31,000 a year. All businesses won’t get there until 2021.) They also take to Facebook with regularity to beg for help, or to bemoan the fact that applicants often just don’t show up for scheduled interviews, or that workers quit with no notice. (Not long ago, Seattle chef Miles James posted: “Good news: We have a dishwasher tonight. Bad news: His name is Miles, he’s old and slow and complains a lot.”) Seattle restaurant The Saint, open since 2008, announced “an exciting shift” this year: the end of its Food & Wine-awarded food program, citing a less-celebratory-sounding “citywide shortage of cooks” as the reason.
These chefs aren’t delusional: By the measure of the state Employment Security Department, the demand for food-service workers in Seattle-King County exceeded the supply by an alarming 3,357 jobs in August. The labor shortage shows no signs of abating — and with President Donald Trump putting DACA on the chopping block, it could get dramatically worse. Food prep and service is the number-one occupation among DACA-eligible workers, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. The Pew Research Center estimates that 11 percent of U.S. restaurant and bar employees are undocumented immigrants.
CASE STUDY: THE NEW SUPERSTAR
One way to get ahead in business is to be a superstar. But even someone with as much recent meteoric success as chef Edouardo Jordan is far from sanguine about the Seattle restaurant scene. “It’s in shambles, a little, and it’s scary,” he says. “There’s no way that this city is gonna be able to sustain all these restaurants.”
Jordan hails from St. Petersburg, Florida; his route to Seattle included the French Laundry and Per Se. Here, he worked for chef Matt Dillon, then opened his own restaurant, Salare. In two years since, the accolades have accumulated: Salare on Eater’s best new restaurants list, Jordan featured in a New York Times story, then a semifinalist for a James Beard Award, then one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs. His new restaurant, JuneBaby, which he opened in April two blocks from Salare, goes back to his Southern roots, taking an educational approach with an online encyclopedia. On Thursday nights, it also makes the world’s best macaroni and cheese. Chance the Rapper and Michael Bennett eat there. Oh, and it was already named to both Eater’s and Esquire’s lists of best new restaurants in the country.
Jordan’s goal is to have three places, but right now, he’s not even thinking about it. Because of the labor shortage, “I can’t find the help I need on the regular,” he says. “Opening up another restaurant, that’s just more drama of, ‘How do I staff this joint?’ ”
After leaving New York because he couldn’t save any money, Jordan’s watching Seattle go the same route, “where you can’t even afford to live in the city unless you work 13 or 14 hours a day, or have five roommates, or live in a 200-square-foot apartment.” He believes in the $15-an-hour minimum wage, “But our customers have to support that … We’re gonna have to raise our prices, or change to a service charge.”
All the acclaim doesn’t insulate Jordan from day-to-day anxiety. “I’m balancing my books every day. I’m looking at every penny,” he says. A broken water heater and three fewer guests a night could be, he says, a disaster. “We are all on the edge of closure.”
Still, Jordan has hope. “I’m extremely happy about the young energy, the diverse-thinking chefs — it brings a lot of excitement,” he says. “It’s cool to talk about Manolin, Tarsan i Jane, what Shota [Nakajima, at the restaurant Adana] is doing.” He says he’s “stoked.” Then, thoughtfully, “It’ll be interesting to see what direction we go in over the next couple of years, figuring out how to adapt to the changes that are being forced on us, and the changes that are needed.”
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
Is Seattle’s appetite for fine dining on the decline? Are younger newcomers — the influx of whom means that 1 in 4 residents is now aged 25 to 34 — more interested in casual places or delivery? The microclimates of South Lake Union and Capitol Hill make it look that way, and upmarket chefs are exploring anti-intimidating options: Rachel Yang’s Trove Noodle Bar, John Sundstrom’s Southpaw pizzeria, Josh Henderson’s multiple Great State Burgers.
Speaking of Henderson, his group’s three sudden closures were a shock — and then came an announcement from fellow local mogul Ethan Stowell that he’d put two of his properties, Anchovies & Olives and Bar Cotto, up for sale. This surprise, however, was accompanied by plans for Stowell’s new Cortina to open next year — and he has yet another restaurant already in the works. That’s two steps back, two steps forward (three, if you count Stowell’s Derby, also opened this year).
Meanwhile, some promising chefs are just leaving — Nick Coffey to open Ursa Minor on Lopez Island, Deborah Taylor to her new Finistère in Port Townsend. Travis Kukull talks of starting a foraging enterprise in Alaska. “No one wants a creative chef” here, he says. “They want a kitchen manager … it sucks.” He’s had it. “I’ll never do my own business in Seattle again. It’s not worth it.”
It might be premature to brand the city as hostile to culinary innovation, but tough restaurant lessons are yet to be learned as the city changes. The labor shortage might present the most intractable problem. In the dramatically shifting, entirely unpredictable Seattle restaurant landscape, the only sure thing is more change.