PENINSULA — Restaurants everywhere have faced a trying year. They were forced to close for weeks and then reopen at greatly reduced capacity due to the coronavirus outbreak. But on the Peninsula, most have so far ridden out it out. Some are thriving.
One big reason: Summer weekdays have been a huge success. For many people in the upside-down world of 2020, every day is a weekend. That means every day is a good day to be at the beach. The coronavirus-related capacity limitations put a ceiling on the peak numbers a restaurant can draw on its busiest days, which traditionally come on the weekend. But this summer’s tourism boom has made every day of the week very busy.
Even on days when their capacity is most strained, some restaurants have found that customers are willing to endure a long wait time. If a group or family sets out for a dine-in experience, it turns out, they are often committed to their plan. Knowing that every other restaurant will likely have similar lines, customers are sitting in their cars and waiting it out rather than going back home or even switching to take-out.
When lockdowns and stay-at-home policies began, few could have foreseen such a strong summer. But they also didn’t know the lockdown would be so long-lasting — nine weeks of takeout-only service. Restaurants struggled badly to plan; a short shutdown might mean it was best to take losses running a take-out operation, but a long shutdown would make that harder. In both the rough times of the spring and the boom times in the summer, restaurant owners have scrambled to adjust, while dealing with countless challenges: supply shortages, communication with furloughed employees, new procedures, customers’ unpredictable reactions to new rules.
Restaurant closure order
On Sunday, March 15, Gov. Jay Inslee tweeted that he would announce the next day an order closing all restaurants for two weeks. Just that Wednesday, the NBA suspended its season, and Disney closed its theme parks. Inslee had announced a suspension of schools, also for two weeks, that Friday. Much of life and the economy was rapidly coming to a halt. Business owners were caught off guard.
“It was Sunday night, the last table of the day, and they asked us ‘Have you heard?’” said Ed Hillard III, owner of the Drop Anchor. “We said, ‘No, we’ve been so busy working all night.’” Hillard went and checked online to confirm. Right away, he talked to his employees.
“We told our employees, ‘We don’t know what the future holds. We’ll keep in constant contact.’”
A few blocks south, at the Lost Roo, similar conversations were taking place.
“The governor… tweeted about it Sunday night, before the official announcement Monday morning. So that night, staff were wondering, ‘What’s going to happen?’” said Travis Miller, who, with his wife Tanya, owns the Roo.
“I came into the restaurant Sunday night and told people, ‘Go, apply for unemployment,’” Tanya said.
Few anticipated how long the shutdown would drag on. “We thought we’d have a two-week shutdown,” Travis said.
“We thought if we closed for a month or so, we would get things under control. Just like the schools; they were going to be closed temporarily, we thought it would get the virus under control. And then — well, I guess there never is a great answer.”
The Roo abandoned its to-go service after a week, shutting down completely for the duration of the lockdown. Hillard furloughed all employees, but initially kept a to-go operation going by doing the cooking himself while his mother, Cindy, brought out the food.
Many restaurants offered takeout during at least part of this period. But many were operating without any non-family employees, in an unsustainable survival mode.
The Cove restaurant, owned by Doug and Angie Brown, was unusual in sticking with curbside service throughout the lockdown, and in running a large-scale operation that brought back employees relatively quickly.
With the restrictions, “there was an immediate hit industry-wide of 30%. And then after that initial decline, we’ve seen a steady incline,” Doug said. “It’s been interesting to read about restaurants around the U.S. that are closing and then not reopening… Businesses that closed found it more difficult to [fully] open than those that stayed open. Those that stayed open were adapting. Other businesses had to try to suddenly reopen and start adapting, too.”
The Browns found that community loyalty enabled them to ride out the spring. “We had the benefit that restaurants in other communities maybe didn’t that customers wanted to support local businesses,” Angie said. “They understood what the situation was, and were willing to work with us as we adjusted.”
How long can a restaurant survive being closed or doing limited business?
“It depends on the business model, how much you have saved,” Tanya Miller said. “Honestly, we were always going to be fine. Well, for at least six months or so.” But Travis interjected. “Well, really, if it had gone on much longer than the nine weeks…” Tanya finished his thought: “It was going to be tough.”
“We talked about it a lot: ‘How long can we stay closed?’” Hillard said. When they were take-out only, “Mom and I weren’t paying ourselves salary, just operation and food costs. We probably could’ve kept going [as long as] necessary…. If we had to pay employees, it would not [have been] sustainable.”
At the Chowder Stop, Casey Barella initially closed altogether. But as the lockdown dragged on week after week, the situation was becoming untenable. Together he and his wife, Gail, own not only the restaurant, but Barella’s barber shop, which she runs, and which was also locked down.
“The bills don’t stop coming, for both businesses and at home. We knew we had to do something. That’s why we opened to-go,” Casey said. With just the two of them working in survival mode with a down-sized menu, and no employees to pay, they could keep it going for the time being.
The restaurant just opened in October and was becoming known locally for its enormous portions of chowder and halibut meals. It was counting on its first tourism season, and now the Barellas wondered if that season would come.
“Everyone called me crazy for opening in October,” Casey said. “But we got to work out the kinks before tourism season. We got the team really dialed in.” Now they had to be prepared to dial back up at any time. “We opened two times. It’s hard enough to open a restaurant once.”
The Depot, too, went into family business emergency mode. They served takeout, and tried to keep employees on by operating a delivery service, but found little demand for delivery. The owners, Nancy Gorshe and Michael Lalewicz, quickly had to furlough all employees while operating the takeout themselves.
“The takeout covered our operating expenses,” Gorshe said. “It’s not a model for success,” but it kept their heads above water.
The Drop Anchor changed course twice during the lockdown. Early in the lockdown, “people were mostly adhering to essential travel only requirements,” Hillard said. “The weekend of spring break, we saw tourists come. Friday was quiet, but Saturday afternoon all the businesses noticed tourists coming into town.”
This was a time when Pacific County was one of the few counties in the state with zero cases. The local public backlash against the spring break tourism boom would lead early the following week to beach approach closures and hotel closures by Pacific County.
“We saw all that [tourism] Saturday, and we never opened Sunday morning. We wanted to keep the community safe,” Hillard said. He brought back the take-out operation starting the first Friday in May.
In late May, restaurants were permitted to reopen at 50% capacity, five to a table, with all tables at least six feet apart. From mid-June to mid-July, authorities placed Pacific County in Phase Three, which, on paper, allowed 75% capacity, with 10 to a table. But the six-feet rule still applied. That meant few, if any restaurants could actually get anywhere near 75% capacity.
For the Roo, reopening hit as suddenly as the initial lockdown. The Millers worked hard to stay in communication with workers as the lockdown dragged on, checking in on people’s well-being and trying to stay prepared to reopen at a moment’s notice, even as nobody knew when that moment would come.
“People assume because you’re a business owner, you know what’s going on,” Tanya said. During the lockdown, they never knew what the near future held. “We didn’t know daily, hourly almost, what was going on.”
Normally, the spring tourism spikes of spring break and clam season help them prepare for the onslaught of summer; the Roo, or any restaurant, can use these times to boost capacity by hiring and training staff. This year, “they [told] us Saturday, Memorial Day weekend, that we can open,” Tanya said. They had to scramble to bring back furloughed workers and hire new ones.
At the Cove, which stayed open the whole time, the ramping up was a much more controlled process. After initial layoffs of 30% of employees, “we brought people back as quickly as we could get things going” with the takeout operation, Doug said. “We did a weekly update for all staff about things we were learning… we sent those updates to everyone, even the furloughed workers. And it’s a two-way street, we needed to hear from them. Some wanted to maintain a distance, they had older people in their families. It was important we knew who we had available.”
“And some were going stir-crazy,” Angie added. “They were saying ‘Hey, I want to get out, can you ramp things up soon?’”
Though the lockdown had ended, the pandemic wasn’t over. Not everyone was prepared to dine in; to-go orders remain an important share of business for most restaurants.
Initially not everyone knew dining in was allowed. On reopening day, Hillard recalls, business was slow. When people came in, Hillard would ask “are you here for dine-in or to-go?” Some were taken aback, not realizing they now had the choice. At the Cove, Brown said, “people who weren’t really following the news would ask for weeks afterward ‘can we eat inside?’”
Barella of the Chowder Stop, though, recalls customers coming back right away. “I literally was slammed that first day. We were badly understaffed — just me and Gail.” He scrambled to bring back employees. At the Roo, the Millers, too, recalled being hit hard right away.
With tourism suddenly surging once again, and with capacity reduced, waiting lists became common at many restaurants. “We haven’t had to turn people away because they’re willing to wait, because there’s nowhere else to go — everyone has a wait. People are sitting in our lot on our waiting list.” Miller described being backed up from 1 to 8 p.m. on a Sunday.
Hillard found that in the first few weeks, some Drop Anchor customers would switch to take-out in response rather than wait. But increasingly, people set out wanting dine-in and determined to ride out the waits. Hillard said the wait has been manageable at 25-35 minutes.
Despite customers’ seeming patience, a wait time that’s too long can backfire.
“We had to turn people away, because we couldn’t give them the dining experience we want to,” Angie Brown said. “We’re prioritizing getting back to casual fine dining. You run the risk of becoming a quick-serve place, and that’s not who we are from an identity point of view. We did get some poor reviews for our wait times. People will say ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah, it’s fine, we’ll wait,’ but when the reality of the wait sets in, they’re not happy. You don’t just want to maximize customers for that day, you want to have happy customers.”
There’s no avoiding the fact that limited capacity places limits on a restaurant’s maximum day. But a summer of big weekdays is making up for it.
“June 1 people are normally still in school, but there was no school, and people were working from home,” Tanya Miller said. “Weekends are down because we’re at 50% capacity. But weekdays make up for it.”
The uncertainty hasn’t ended. While late-summer case totals have dropped in Pacific County, covid levels, public attitudes and policy could swing back any time. The Millers alluded to this possibility unprompted.
“In March, it didn’t make sense to stay open for takeout,” Tanya said. “Now, it would. Even if we shut down again, we would stay open for takeout — well, unless they closed the hotels again.”
But otherwise, the Millers foresee tourism remaining strong for months. They note that many businesses are staying remote through at least the end of the year and that schools are delaying their reopening. One of the largest restaurants on the Peninsula, the Roo has struggled to find enough workers to meet the demand. This month, they have had to close Mondays.
The Cove and the Depot, with their small, cozy indoor dining sections and their customary reliance on bar seating that is now prohibited, would have been very hard-hit by reduced indoor capacity. But both are fortunate to have outdoor capacity, a huge boost for as long as the weather remains favorable. The Cove, being on a golf course, put up a big tent with picnic tables to expand seating. The Depot has deck seating, though space limitations still hold them to ten outdoor seats.
Still, the Depot is forced to turn people away. Because it is a fine dining restaurant, it often gets couples on their night out, meaning only two seats at a table are filled. Often, groups of three couples will come, who then have to be split among two tables. Thus it doesn’t actually reach even its greatly reduced on-paper capacity, despite strong demand. The Depot fills tables by reservation, and in the world of 2020 finds itself booked up quickly on a busy day.
“We’re at about 40% capacity, and our break-even is more like 60%,” Gorshe said. They’re getting by during summer, “but normally summer is what we’re banking on to get us through winter. That’s what makes me nervous.”
Like the Millers, they have considered what they would do in the event of another lockdown. “We’d definitely try [take-out] again. But maybe we would just close for the winter. We own our building, so we have the privilege of being able to do that. But psychologically, you don’t want to do that,” Gorshe added, because a restaurant can then lose touch with its customers.
Supply shortagesSupplies have been an ongoing source of uncertainty. At one point in the spring, the Browns were worried they would run out of cleaning supplies and have to close. With the reopening, many suppliers had to suddenly ramp up production. There have been shortages.
“It’s something different all the time,” Tanya Miller said. “One day it could be horseradish. [Or] certain beers.”
PPP loansThe Millers found the Paycheck Protection Program, which provided federal loans to small businesses in an attempt to keep people on payroll, to be an important boost. Nancy Gorshe says the PPP loans helped get them through lean months and bring back staff.
But the Chowder Stop fell through the cracks. They didn’t yet have enough employees to qualify; the lockdown hit just when they were about to ramp up hiring in preparation for busy season.
Enforcing the rules
Amid the scramble to meet all this dine-in demand, along with a big slate of to-go orders, restaurants have to follow covid-related requirements that inevitably hamper efficiency. Menus are single-use. Salt, pepper and ketchup are as well; customers usually have to request these condiments. Customers tempted to sit at a table before it has been cleaned have to be restrained.
Groups, especially those from states with different rules, often arrive unprepared for the five-to-a-table requirement. And on top of everything else, staff have the task of watching for violations of a requirement that patrons wear a mask whenever they are not seated at a table, and of enforcing the rule. Tourists can be less willing to cut them slack than those in the local community.
“We have to fight with people about wearing masks,” Tanya Miller said. “And the five-to-a-table rule. Some people aren’t being nice about it. A lot of tourists don’t know about the rule.”
The Browns observed something similar. When it was mostly locals, during the takeout only phase, “people said ‘Thanks for staying open,’” Doug noted. “You got the feeling they weren’t just coming because they were hungry, they wanted to help out a local business during that March through May stretch. Tourists aren’t so much coming because they want to support a local business. They’re here for their own mental well-being. They’ve spent all that time cooped up, and they’re intent on going back to normal. Parties of ten or more can’t understand why they can’t be together. People traveling don’t understand. Explaining it in the heat of the moment, telling them something they don’t like, is a challenge. I haven’t had any negative experiences, but it’s been uncomfortable.”
“Well, we’ve had a couple of people walk out,” Angie corrected.
While customers may grumble, it is restaurant staff that are truly suffering from the mask mandate. While customers only have to wear masks during the brief time they are away from a table, workers have to wear them throughout their shift, often on hot days.
“This weekend, when it was hot, it was very difficult to wear a mask,” Hillard said after the third weekend in August. “It was so hot in the kitchen. We had a meeting before the day started to make sure everyone’s taking breaks, and getting water. We turned fans on first thing in the morning.”
As restaurant employees returned to work, they were buoyed by highly generous tips, especially early in the reopening, as customers seemingly sought to keep restaurants and their workers afloat.
“The community has been so generous and kind, asking if we’re all okay,” Gorshe, the Depot owner, said.
“Take-out workers made really good tips,” Doug Brown, of the Cove, noted, with customers effectively treating them as sit-down servers.
“The first couple of weeks [of reopening], it was insane how generous people were,” Hillard of the Drop Anchor said. “The tips people would give, we’d say ‘No, really, you don’t have to do that.’ But they’d say, ‘No, we really want to help out.’ It just brought a tear to your eye.”