Frelard’s Tarsan i Jane needed to make a choice. When Washington state shut down dining rooms until at least March 31, due to coronavirus measures, the highly-acclaimed modern Valencian restaurant needed to either shift to takeout or delivery, or close down temporarily. It decided on the latter — but still needed a plan for the time when conditions might be right to open again.
As a small, independently owned operation that relies on tasting menu dinners at its 10-seat counter ($215 per person) and five-course paella brunches ($80 per person), the investment required to shift the entire business model on the fly seemed prohibitive to chef Perfecte Rocher and his wife, Alia, who manages the restaurant. So to generate much-needed revenue now, they expanded the existing prepaid reservation calendar all the way to November, rather than just three months out. “Allowing guests to book so far out in the future will allow for the income needed to cover re-opening costs,” Alia tells Eater Seattle. Some of those costs might include food purchases, alcohol, and maintenance, in addition to rent and utilities, if no government-based relief is provided in the interim.
Restaurants across the country are trying to find ways to generate revenue as soon as — and in any way — possible, while still adhering to city and state mandates about social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic. A bailout may be vital for the industry’s overall survival. In the meantime, gift card purchases, for instance, may help in the short term. Although there may be a concern that whenever temporary closure orders are lifted, restaurants will simply be deferring a money problem down the road whenever diners cash in those gift cards and certificates.
A similar issue could occur with prepaid reservations, since restaurants will need to make sure that the money being used now to pay rent during a closure isn’t needed later. But extending prepaid reservations may not even necessarily generate that much cash flow now, if diners aren’t thinking about going out to any time soon or are concerned about the state of the economy. For instance, upscale Queen Anne restaurant Eden Hill, which has closed temporarily, still has its reservation line open for April and May, but there aren’t many advanced bookings currently, according to co-owner Jennifer Petty. “We’ll evaluate on a weekly basis as conditions change,” she says.
For restaurants extending their prepaid policies, it probably doesn’t hurt to try different strategies, and across the city, chefs that rely on prepaid reservations are weighing their options. Chef Eric Rivera of Addo plans his eclectic prepaid meals — such as Harry Potter and Oregon Trail-themed dinners — far in advance already, although he usually supplements that revenue with other aspects of his business, such as catering and private dinners (which have dried up for the time being). For now, Rivera’s sticking with the existing booking window for reservations, available through December, but using this time without a dine-in restaurant to plot out the entirety of Addo’s 2021 schedule. “You need to be able to produce and be around that long without interruption for the guests’ expectations,” he says, adding that he’s “adapting as needed.”
At Capitol Hill’s small spirits-focused bar the Doctor’s Office, prepaid deposits help to secure cash and reduce unexpected cancelations under normal circumstances. The tiny spot opened recently with a prepaid deposit of $25 per person, but it is now closed temporarily and has rescheduled the existing reservations for the next two weeks due to Washington’s mandatory closure. Co-owner Dr. Matthew Powell says he won’t be surprised if he’ll need to reschedule those reservations further. “We are accepting reservations through the end of June, but certainly do understand people waiting until things are a bit more certain,” he says. “But prepaid reservations and gift certificates won’t make or break us. If or when this closure extends into April, it’ll come down to whether the landlord and lenders continue to charge us as though we were open.”
Elsewhere, Hillman City’s Filipino fine-dining restaurant Archipelago had to cancel all dinners until March 31 and offered to provide full refunds, but will evaluate week by week if it will need to cancel reservations for April and beyond, according to a note on its website. Eden Hill may also introduce a temporary concept during its current closure, but isn’t sure whether it’s “better to just wait it out,” says Petty. The restaurant’s more casual offshoot, Eden Hill Provisions, is now open for takeout and delivery with a modified menu from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, and is planning subscription meal boxes and private dinner auctions with chef Maximillian Petty.
At Tarsan i Jane, which celebrates its four-year anniversary in May, the Rochers know that banking on diners’ future plans alone may not help them stay afloat. They are currently trying to work with their landlords on rent deferment and looking into possible state or federal loans to cover some costs. Chef Rocher is also planning on posting home cooking videos on the restaurant’s Instagram to maintain a close connection with diners.
“It will be tough to weather this storm, but if we have the support of our guests and press to spread the word of just how difficult these times are, we believe we can get through it,” Alia Rocher says.