Olga Sagan — owner of Seattle’s iconic Piroshky Piroshky Bakery chain — is open to ideas on how to weather a storm. She says sales at the Pike Place Market location have dropped 70 percent ever since the first death in the U.S. from COVID-19 was reported in King County this weekend (confirmed cases are up to 51 in the area, and deaths now total 10 in Washington state). The normally long lines have slowed to a trickle, and Sagan has had meetings with her team on how to “get creative” to ride the rough patch out. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my 20 years of business,” she says.
There are timers behind the Piroshky Piroshky counters that remind employees to wash their hands regularly (once they go off, they must stop what they’re doing immediately and scrub down). The shop’s research and development team also scrambled to come up with a new item on the menu this week: what Sagan calls an “immune-supportive” piroshki, with ginger, chickpeas, curry, zucchini, and cayenne. On the operations side, the chain — with four locations in the area and a food truck — is looking into adding a delivery option for the first time in order to generate more revenue, but hasn’t made a decision on that yet.
This effort to go into high-alert and plan for the worst seems to be the trend across the city’s restaurant scene, from Pike Place to Capitol Hill to the Chinatown International District, where the Seattle Times reports that revenue for several businesses in the area has dropped anywhere from 20 to 40 percent since late January, with a report in The Stranger saying the decline may be even higher. Many restaurants in that neighborhood — and in Chinatowns around the country — have been especially hit hard due to racist stigma associated with Asian food. Harry Chan, the owner of the 85 year-old business Tai Tung, told the Times he is concerned he may have to lay off employees if things don’t pick up.
And up in South Lake Union, Zheng Cafe — which features dishes influenced by the chef’s Wuhan, China roots — closed for weeks out of personal concerns, before reopening again, only to see business slow. As an abundance of caution, Zheng Cafe, as well as several other restaurants around the city, have displayed hand sanitizers on tables and counters prominently, and stepped up additional sanitary practices and internal policies to ensure both customer and employee safety.
The impact of novel coronavirus concerns on the food world has also expanded outside the city center. In the usually quiet neighborhood of Kirkland, WA, there are many restaurants within a short drive from the Life Care Center where most of the reported U.S. deaths from the coronavirus occurred. James Beard Award-winning chef Holly Smith of Kirkland’s fine-dining mainstay Cafe Juanita says she had fewer new reservations this week and the phones have “seemed quiet.”
But the chef had already been taking steps with her staff for weeks to prioritize safety and prepare for all possibilities. “There are hand sanitizers at every door and Clorox wipes at every computer terminal,” Smith says. “We’re no longer picking up guests napkins with bare hands, and there are reminders for constant, repetitive hand washing and a discussion with staff to think ahead economically, as well as emotionally, that shifts likely will be cut — and in a worse case scenario, we may be forced to close from a public health mandate. We are internally trying to plan, communicate and be a safe place to visit and work.”
Meanwhile, other area restaurants have taken to social media to signal their due diligence, whether it’s pointing out the travel habits of its employees, as the longtime vegan Thai chain Araya’s Place did on Instagram:
Or to assure its customers that sanitary practices are fully out in the open, as the popular local burger chain Dick’s Drive-in did on Twitter:
Here's how we're addressing Coronavirus concerns. pic.twitter.com/1jxZZLkWf8— Dick's Drive-Ins (@DicksDriveIns) March 4, 2020
Pagliacci Pizza also posted some details about its strategy:
We are addressing coronavirus concerns by following the CDC and the King County Health Department’s guidelines to provide food to you safely. We have excellent health and sanitation practices. Food safety is our top priority. pic.twitter.com/fwEP6wsEEA— Pagliacci Pizza (@pagliaccipizza) March 5, 2020
And national chains like Starbucks are also taking action, including halting the practice of allowing customers to bring their own mugs and cups in for refills, though customers who bring their own cups will still receive a 10 cent discount as a courtesy. Starbucks will also hold its annual shareholders meeting in Seattle March 18 remotely.
If some of that seems excessive, one might consider the difficult position many area restaurants are in. Continue business as usual and they risk not taking a public health crisis seriously enough; overreact and they may fan the flames of hysteria, deterring more people from eating out or tourists from visiting. In that vein, one national headline referring to Seattle as “a ghost town” got some understandable pushback from locals on Twitter — the headline itself was misleading, since it referred to a quote from a single Pike Place Market vendor about that specific area, not Seattle as a whole. For what it’s worth, Andrew Garfield, a manager at longtime Pike Place staple Market Grill tells Eater Seattle business has been quieter recently, but not completely unusual for the season, and he hopes things will pick up once the cruise ships dock in April. (And, yes, there is hand sanitizer on his counter, but he says that’s been there for months.)
Beyond psychological impacts, restaurants have more concrete concerns to contend with as the city ramps up measures in an attempt to slow the coronavirus spread. Recent guidelines from the state prompted both Microsoft and Amazon recommend that employees who can work from home do so for the rest of March. That means there will likely be a ripple effect in the Eastside and Downtown restaurants that rely on tech workers for lunchtime revenue. In an industry already facing well-documented headwinds, a slow month or even a week can be brutal to the bottom line.
In the meantime, those who want to find the most up-to-date, reliable information should go to the official King County public health site, which has recommendations on how to stay safe and sanitary (washing hands regularly has been a continuous mantra).
“Numbers will go back up, things will re-balance,” says Cafe Juanita chef Smith. “But we need to be thoughtful, rather than reactive, starting last month and going on indefinitely.”
Hear of a restaurant taking any measures because of coronavirus? Email the tipline.
- New Public Health Recommendations to Slow the Spread of Coronavirus [King County Public Health Insider]
- Growing Fears of Novel Coronavirus Have Hurt Chinese Businesses In the Seattle Area [Seattle Times]
- The Coronavirus Is Personal for a Seattle Chef Serving Dishes from Wuhan [ESEA]
- All coverage of novel coronavirus [E]