The pendulum of Joe Bernstein’s emotions swung Monday.
He opened an envelope expecting to add to the three-tiered holder for bills on his kitchen wall — the slots divided into categories of “have to pay,” “want to pay” and “deferred” since the coronavirus pandemic stripped Bernstein and his wife of income in March.
Instead, the piece of mail was a check for $5,000. The upper corner read, “Sounders Relief Fund.”
The check is part of the more than $200,000 the Sounders awarded to 143 individuals and 17 small businesses in its first grant cycle. Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer and his mother initiated the fund with $500,000, wanting to specifically help those who work or operate in Pioneer Square, Sodo and Chinatown International District.
Bernstein deposited the money Tuesday, ensuring when the Sounders and other events at CenturyLink, T-Mobile Park, or WaMu Theater return, his Joe’s Grilled Gourmet Dogs business will, too.
“Who would’ve thought?” Bernstein said while sobbing. He has cried nightly since March when in a dizzying 24 hours all major events were canceled in Seattle.
Those tears have swung from fear to appreciation as the Sounders helped sustain a business Bernstein has operated across from CenturyLink on Occidental Avenue South for more than 20 years.
“I’m in direct competition with them any way you look at it,” Bernstein said. “Who would’ve thought that a competitor would reach out and pay the bills of his competitor just to make sure that their fans, their customers would have the exact same game-day experience once it comes back?
“They realize that I’m part of the game-day experience, just as much as the beer vendors inside (CenturyLink). You’d think they’d want the hot-dog guy across the street closed. Some stadiums around America don’t have hot-dog stands within a mile. They’re not allowed. These guys care about their fans so much that they’re willing to pay to make sure I’m there. … It’s unbelievable.”
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On a typical match day, the corridor outside CenturyLink Field starts to sprout Sounder Blue and Rave Green colors three hours before kickoff. A few supporters-group leaders are permitted into the stadium early to hang banners, while other fans start to fill up bars, restaurants and even small art galleries before the match.
Bernstein’s cart with yellow and red signage blaring his catchphrase “Would You Look At The Size Of This One!” is a dot in the flood of activity. But still part of the snapshot Hanauer said he thought of March 12 when MLS announced the suspension of its season to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Jay Inslee later put the state under a stay-at-home order — now extended through May 31 — effectively shuttering most businesses. The mandate caused unemployment to increase by 33,200 in the Seattle/Everett/Bellevue area in March, compared with the same time frame in 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“It’s a ghost town,” Caroline Lee said of the scene outside her bubble-tea shop “Young Tea” located on Weller Street in the Chinatown International District. She closed for two weeks, spending most days applying for grants and loans to save her business.
Lee, who celebrated the store’s fifth anniversary in April, said she was denied money through the federal government’s Payroll Protection Program. But the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority (SCIDpda) quickly formed the CID Restaurants and other Small Business Relief Fund to help the neighborhood.
The Sounders contributed $20,000 to the nonprofit organization, the SCIDpda distributing $1,500 checks to 13 businesses. Lee’s was one, distributing the funds among five employees.
Lee was also able to reopen her store, but with limited hours and the added expense of face masks, gloves and hand sanitizer for her employees.
“This really hit me hard,” said Lee, whose plans to open an expansion franchise in Bellevue this spring were put on hold. “But with all of the support, I think I’m going to get through this.”
National Bubble Tea Day on April 30 was a throwback to pre-COVID-19. More than 100 customers, many loyal to Lee, streamed through the shop enjoying drinks and each other. If it weren’t for the masks and social distancing, the atmosphere would mirror that of Sounders fans dropping by for a tea after a win.
“On match day I park at our offices and walk past 50 business, all of which are now shut down,” Hanauer said of his club’s headquarters on Occidental Avenue South. “This is for sure hard on the Sounders, but it’s nowhere near as hard on the Sounders as it is on Taylor Shellfish (Oyster Bar) or Salumi or Walker’s Lockers, where people can store their bags. This has just been devastating.”
Al Griffin, who owns Al’s Gourmet Sausage on Occidental, received $5,000 from the Sounders Relief Fund, but Pyramid Alehouse announced earlier this month it’s folding because the business model can’t withstand a prolonged closure.
Geoff Walker, owner of the namesake mobile storage truck, received notice last week the Sounders granted him $4,000. Walker was also approved of funding through the Payroll Protection Program, retaining two contracted employees to help complete administrative work like updating the website and employee manual. But another 100 others are basically furloughed indefinitely.
“I’m afraid even when the reopening stuff happens, there’s nothing for me to reopen,” Walker said. “It’s going to be just hanging on because I’m going to have six or more months having to pay insurance, storage and office rent and keeping my people on staff. If there are no fans at the Seahawks games or the Sounders games that they might play, then we won’t be needed.”
Walker, like Josh Henderson, the chef/owner of Quality Athletics on South King Street, is trying to create a different way to use his equipment. Henderson, who received assistance from the government, is considering being a walk-up pizzeria or commissary for food trucks.
Overhauls that still require funding.
“The $500,000 my family seeded, and hopefully we’re able to raise considerably more than that,” Hanauer said. “But let’s be realistic. It’s a drop in the bucket to what is ultimately going to be required to get people back on solid footing.”
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Bernstein’s wife Severine begged her husband of nearly 30 years to not check Facebook on March 11 when they landed in Mexico. It was the first true vacation for Joe, paid in full almost a year in advance and scheduled between Sounders home matches.
“It was like a bad movie,” Bernstein said of checking the site from his hammock on the beach as the fallout of Inslee’s ban on large gatherings and the suspension of all pro sports hit his feed.
Sounders games aren’t the only events for which vendors such as Bernstein sell their products. Also slashed from his calendar in March were Seattle Dragons XFL games, Monster Energy Supercross, Taste Washington and Mariners home games, including opening day.
Suddenly a luxury vacation became a penny-pinching stress. Joe caught a barracuda and took Severine to swim with dolphins, but they didn’t buy any souvenir photos and skimped on meals knowing they’d have only a small amount of savings to draw from when they returned home.
“I had no pay day coming,” said Joe, whose wife was furloughed from her company that distributes products to salons. “I’m going around in circles. … this is the first time in my life where I don’t know what to do. I’m a strong man, I thought, and I’m coming home breaking down and crying and going to have a nervous breakdown.”
Bernstein was also denied assistance from the federal government. He was one of 9,000 people to apply for the City of Seattle Small Business Stabilization Fund but was not approved.
To get by, his youngest son — working overtime for Fred Meyer because of the pandemic — paid April’s mortgage, and Joe landed a job making $15 per hour at Costco.
The check from the Sounders stopped the feeling of a two-month tailspin. Bernstein paid the $900 fee to renew the health permit that expired in April, insurance for the stand and the lease for April and May.
Bernstein’s first check from Costco — which included overtime installing sneeze guards for the checkout lanes — should cover May’s mortgage. And with his wife back at work as part of Inslee’s first phase to reopen Washington’s economy, the couple can deal with the slot of “have to pay” bills.
Many in the restaurant business are offering takeout services or mobilizing as food trucks. Bernstein is contemplating how he survives in a post-COVID-19 world. His business is made to feed crowds, and it’s still unsafe for people to gather.
But Bernstein — through tears of joy — said he’s forever indebted to the Sounders.
“They saved my life,” he said.