It has been through two World Wars, a Great Depression, and the Spanish Flu — but Seattle’s oldest sushi restaurant needs some help getting through the COVID-19 pandemic. Maneki, whose history dates back to 1904, launched a GoFundMe to help raise some much-needed funds, as it struggles to generate enough business to stay afloat and keep staff onboard. So far, it has raised $16,325 out of a $20,000 goal.
Throughout the spring and summer, Makeki has tried to adjust to the closures, and then limits, on dine-in services. For the first time ever, the restaurant created an online ordering system and offered takeout. But as Seattle stalls in phase two of Washington’s reopening plan (in which restaurants can seat people at 50 percent capacity), the iconic space is in limbo.
In pre-pandemic times, the bar was the place to be, where diners would gorge on shrimp tempura rolls, “big mouth” rolls with crab sticks and sweetened fish flakes, and ume shiso rolls with sour plum paste. But bar seating is not allowed at all during phase two, and the narrow dining room has proved challenging to offer any dine-in at all.
“We decided a GoFundMe would allow us to make some safety layout improvements for when we open our tatami dining room,” the restaurant’s owner and longtime caretaker Jean Nakayama tells Eater Seattle. “We also have had to enhance our menu and reduce our hours. Maneki business has seen about a 70-80 percent reduction of our normal dining activity, and we had to close our popular Hannya Bar Lounge completely.”
Though Maneki offers a variety of Japanese dishes, such as sukiyaki and spicy cod karaage, its popular sushi is also not always the most takeout-friendly type of cuisine, especially in the summer heat. The staff is currently exploring options to create a takeout window for bento boxes.
“We spent a few sleepless nights to get online ordering, new gift cards, and a new web presence,” says Nakayama. “The challenge with ‘package for delivery’ is we miss out on our traditional Japanese plating and presentation fanfare. Not knowing when we will be able to resume operations has been a planning roller coaster. We have many returning senior customers and we want to ensure their safety, so we have been dutifully extra cautious.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the Seattle area hard, GoFundMe campaigns for area restaurants and their staff were common, often raising thousands of dollars. While a few are still active, the crowdfunding became rarer once more assistance became available, including additional money for unemployed workers and the loans through the federal payroll protection program (PPP).
Maneki did receive a PPP loan and a small grant a few months ago, but with revenue down significantly and the pandemic showing no signs of fading anytime soon, it can use all the help it can get right now.
“Our city has been turned inside out, but our community has so much compassion,” Nakayama says. “Our hearts are full from all the support, and we are truly thankful for all the contributions.”
UPDATED, July 31, 2020, 11:12 a.m.: This article has been updated with quotes from Maneki’s Jean Nakayama.