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As Social Distancing Increases, Some Seattle Restaurants Bank on Gift Cards for Relief

It could be a way to support local businesses at lower public health risk during the coronavirus pandemic

A blank card being picked up by a fork against a gray background.
Some restaurants hope gift cards may provide much-needed cash relief now.

The novel coronavirus has drastically altered daily life in Seattle — and restaurants have felt a severe brunt from the economic downturn. While some chefs and owners have made the difficult decision to shut down their restaurants temporarily, and others have made an adjustment to more takeout and delivery options, there’s another mode of support being promoted on social media and local small business gatherings: buying gift cards.

The idea is that this could be a way of providing some revenue to restaurants that badly need it, while also still adhering to social distancing guidelines detailed by the CDC and local authorities (here are some specific recommendations for retail businesses and diners by King County Public Health).

“Restaurants do not have a lot of cash flow right now,” says Alex Pemoulie, director of finance at chef Renee Erickson’s Sea Creatures group. Sales for Erickson’s restaurants (which includes Willmott’s Ghost in the Amazon Spheres) have been down 32 percent across the board. Tom Douglas reported declines up to 90 percent, and smaller places in the International District have been dealing with low foot traffic for even longer than other neighborhoods, with sales plummeting as a result.

Pemoulie says gift cards are almost like “microloans” diners can give to support their favorite restaurants now, cashing them in when — hopefully — the coronavirus crisis abates, and people feel more comfortable eating out in greater numbers. Local businesses on Capitol Hill met this week and agreed that it could be a good approach to offer temporary respite during such a drastic downturn.

There many places across the city’s spectrum that offer gift cards or certificates, from fast-casual places like Marination to high-end spots like John Howie Steak. Chef Mutsuko Soma’s acclaimed Fremont soba restaurant Kamonegi offers physical and digital gift cards (which can be redeemed at next-door sake bar Hannyatou as well), plus there’s Capitol Hill’s Malaysian street food spot Kedai Makan, Downtown’s Shaker and Spear (with a 25 percent discount incentive) and the meaty Jack’s BBQ, just to name a few. Even the iconic Tai Tung in the International District, which has seen a serious drop in business recently, offers gift certificates, although diners would need to go to the restaurant in person to purchase them. (Please feel free to send us tips on other restaurants offering gift cards or certificates, and we’ll try to keep a running tab below.)

Of course, not every place is set up for gift cards — and many smaller spots don’t offer them at all. But for diners who still want to support those neighborhood businesses, it might be a good idea to look up their takeout and pickup options. Pike Place Market, which has been impacted by new restrictions on large gatherings, posted a list of its businesses that offer delivery. And as Eater National wrote, while there is no fail-safe way to protect against the coronavirus, there are still steps healthy individuals can take to make dining out less risky.

Other restaurants with gift card options:

Mamnoon Street
Quality Athletics
Eight Row