In September, iconic Pacific Northwest seafood restaurant chain Ivar’s made a big decision. With its flagship location right on the waterfront and reliant on tourists, business had been down for months, and didn’t look like it would pick up amid the ongoing pandemic. Even with relaxed restrictions on indoor dining at 50 percent capacity, the company saw that all the measures it took to stay afloat — reducing expenses, expanding delivery, new menu items — wouldn’t be enough to keep the operations at its full-service restaurants going.
So, it announced that two major pieces of the empire — Ivar’s Acres of Clams and Salmon House — would close until spring 2021. “We were able to get some rent relief from our landlords that is helping us get through the slow season and back to the sunny weather, cruise ships, 320,000 people working downtown, conventions, boats on Lake Union, Husky games, Sounders and Mariners crowds downtown,” says Ivar’s president, Bob Donegan. But that outlook may be overly optimistic, considering the pandemic shows no signs of abating: COVID-19 cases in King County have spiked in recent weeks.
Given such uncertainty, Ivar’s isn’t the only restaurant that is basically hibernating for the winter. Two downtown spots from the Hitchcock Restaurant Group — Bar Taglio and Cafe Hitchcock — recently closed after months of giving takeout a try. Chef and owner Brendan McGill says the restaurants only rung up a few hundred dollars in sales per day over that time, making the cost of keeping them open too prohibitive. But he’s not giving up altogether. “We’ll wait until people come back to that area,” he says.
McGill has some perspective about the seasonal nature of Seattle’s hospitality business, which can be a challenge even in flush times. His flagship restaurant, Hitchcock, is located on Bainbridge Island, where he says “you basically make all your money in the summer, then try not to lose it in the winter.” McGill says that trying to keep restaurants open during a pandemic in 2020 was “like three winters in a row.”
Hitchcock itself is undergoing a change for the colder months. Starting November 10, it will turn into Bavarian burger restaurant Burgerhaus, rather than the sit-down, multi-course experience that drew in locals for years. The restaurant also offers community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes and has started a wine club. “We’re still not profitable, but those programs have been successful and allow us to hang on,” he says. The hope is that Burgerhaus will be another boon, helping the restaurant group through a season when people may not feel safe spending much time dining inside or outside at a restaurant. And, if there’s another lockdown, switching to a full takeout model will be a lot easier.
Those are the considerations restaurateur Miki Sodos ponders as well, as she has temporarily closed down her Belltown restaurant Bang Bang Cafe until the New Year. “The numbers just didn’t work, and this way we can just sit tight for a bit, pay rent, and open up later,” Sodos says. She adds that the timeline for reopening is all dependent upon what the government does regarding a second round of stimulus — if that happens — and its approach to the COVID-19 crisis. In the meantime, she consolidated resources, moved some workers to her other properties (such as Cafe Pettirosso on Capitol Hill), and will take some time to refresh the space with a new paint job. “It’s our first business and we’re going to make sure it gets through this,” she says.
Having other restaurant properties open helps ease the blow of a hibernation, as does a good relationship with a landlord. Though many restaurants and chefs Eater has spoken with since the pandemic began were reluctant to share the details of their rent agreements, it seems clear that larger operators (like Ivar’s) stand a better chance of keeping things on ice than others, particularly in the downtown area. As McGill says, often, when an office building has a retail tenant, there are deals which pay out a percentage of sales or other incentives. “Who would be more qualified to resume our operations there than us?” says McGill.
But not every owner has the flexibility to shut down places temporarily. Staying dormant for months is costly, particularly if tenants do not receive flexibility from their landlords (Seattle’s eviction moratorium through the end of the year only delays payments; it doesn’t eliminate them). In these cases, smaller restaurants face some difficult decisions, operating with margins that are even more razor thin than usual.
Eric Chan of the dim sum destination Jade Garden in the International District says his family-run restaurant is still open for takeout, but has opted not to include dine-in services because of concerns over the rise in coronavirus cases, combined with flu season. Even with those factors, Jade Garden simply can’t afford to even have an off day, much less an off few months. Chan says online sales from third-party apps make up 50 percent of the business, and — even with the percentage the apps take away from orders — they’ve been crucial to keeping the business from going under (it helps that Seattle has capped third-party commission fees to restaurants at 15 percent). “We hope to see the light at the end of the tunnel soon,” he says.
Meanwhile, in South Lake Union, restaurants that rely on office workers grabbing lunch have been in dire straits for most of 2020. Wassef Haroun, owner of Mamnoon Street, located near Amazon’s campus, has considered whether it would be best to close the restaurant, now that money from the federal Payroll Protection Program has run dry and with no other government relief in sight. “We’re in a perfect storm,” Haroun says, adding that there’s a threshold for losses that would make staying open untenable. Even though they haven’t dipped below that number yet, he’s continuing to monitor the situation. “There is a real risk of spending money to be open and having nothing to show for it.”
In the meantime, others sit and hold out hope, keeping their doors open as colder winds blow in. As Jade Garden’s Chan says of the new season, “This is make it or break it for us.”