After a rash of restaurant and bar closures marked the end of 2019, some may be looking at the next year with trepidation. A detailed, thought-provoking report that ran this weekend in the Seattle Times by Bethany Jean Clement explores the complicated economics of the area’s food scene, including the much-debated $15 minimum wage law, which some — such as the recently bankrupt Restaurants Unlimited — blamed for closures. The reality appears much more complicated. For instance, restaurateur Ethan Stowell (Tavolata, How to Cook a Wolf) says in the article that the $15 minimum wage is “absolutely not” destroying area restaurants.
There are, of course, a host of factors involved. “The cost of living in Seattle is going very high, and it’s trickling down to business,” Stowell told the Times. Another big issue mentioned is the rise in retail space costs, which have increased 36 percent per square footage from a decade ago. That, together with increased competition and pressure to play ball (and sacrifice a portion of revenue) to third-party delivery apps, have made things difficult for many restaurants.
Stowell even says he feels “fortunate” to be able to reassess his business by closing places that didn’t work (such as the recently-shuttered Super Bueno and Bramling Cross), whereas smaller restaurants may have to stay open, despite a challenging environment, in order to pay back loans and keep up with bills. No matter what, the situation doesn’t look great for growth, but the article provides push back against those who lay the blame solely on the minimum wage increase.
Meanwhile, not everyone was enthralled with the quotes from the Times piece. Chef Eric Rivera (of Addo fame) said on Facebook that “being just ok doesn’t work anymore. The people that have moved here have experienced other food scenes and gave the money to drive that expectation. Step aside or step up.”
Rivera further clarifies to Eater Seattle, “I’m not attacking Bethany or the Seattle Times. I’m just tired of hearing about chefs that have so much and expect everyone to fall in line because of it, while there are smaller operators pushing the boundaries in order to make it. Seeing successful chefs who made it then make public comments that slow the scene down is my gripe.”
Here are three other takeaways from Clement’s report:
Some chefs are not in love with Instagram. Poncharee “PK” Kounpungchart, co-owner of the dearly departed Little Uncle, opines that social media has “ruined the food industry.” Keeping up with promotion on various platforms became a burden. “People don’t give a [expletive] about what ingredients we use anymore — it’s just as long as that plate looks Instagrammable.”
Matt Dillon likes to curse. At the end of the piece, star chef Dillon — who decided to close down his acclaimed restaurant Sitka & Spruce in 2019 — gave a blunt assessment of the way things are now in the industry: “[Expletive] those suits.”
There’s some hope. A few chefs quoted in the piece pointed to bright spots around town, including Capitol Hill’s lunch-only omakase counter By Tae, the modern Korean restaurant Paju in Queen Anne, and the recently-opened Laotian place Taurus Ox (which replaced Little Uncle). These are some of the food destinations that bring affordability and quality together, while starting small.