With the omicron surge finally ebbing, restaurants and bars in the Seattle area are anticipating a more hopeful — but still uncertain — future. Now that Washington State ended indoor masking requirements on March 12 and King County rolled back vaccination status requirements on March 1, things are looking up for owners and workers in the hospitality industry. But even so, many owners fear that the fragile state of their industry will fade into the background as other municipal issues take center stage. More than a few of these businesses are in a precarious state, while 2,300 restaurants in Washington never made it through the pandemic.
“The good news is that your average consumer has returned, and that’s good,” said Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Hospitality Association. “But most operators built a ton of debt. So you’re going to see some of your favorite restaurants busy on a Friday night, but on the following Tuesday you’ll drive by and see they’re closed.”
Policies that will potentially boost the industry — including renewing permits for outdoor dining areas — are some of the things Anton and restaurant owners are hoping to see action on this year.
Here’s a rundown of three issues that bars and restaurants in the Puget Sound region will be paying close attention to over the next few months.
Extending permits for outdoor dining areas
One of the most visible and popular innovations the restaurant industry created during the pandemic — outdoor seating areas popularly known as “streateries” — will likely continue in some form as long as municipalities agree on regulations and permitting. In Seattle, City Councilmember Dan Strauss introduced legislation last year extending the outdoor street cafe permitting process through January 2023. The bill passed in a unanimous council vote on February 22 and Mayor Bruce Harrell signed it into law on March 8.
Speaking to Eater Seattle, Strauss said the Seattle Department of Transportation conducted a poll last year that found widespread support for outdoor cafes, including on sidewalks (90 percent), curb spaces (90 percent) and full-block closures of some streets (90 percent). “We know this is a very successful program,” he said, “and so we need to get the permanent policies right-sized for our city.”
More than 250 businesses in Seattle have created outdoor dining areas through the existing program. Strauss says the extension through next January will give the city’s new mayor, Bruce Harrell, and his administration time to work with the council to gather input and craft a permanent permitting process for streateries.
Luis Rodriguez, who owns the Station, a coffee shop on Beacon Hill, took advantage of the outdoor dining program and says it helped his business survive the pandemic. But he also wants to ensure the city consistently enforces regulations. “It feels like the city has been lenient with it in some areas. A lot of restaurants depend on that alcohol revenue,” Rodriguez said. “So maybe the city could make it easier to serve a glass of wine on a patio.”
Councilmember Sara Nelson also co-owns Fremont Brewing, and said extending the streatery permit system was a legislative priority. “Those supplies [for outdoor dining] cost a lot of money,” Nelson said. “If you’re going to make that investment you need to know how long that will last … The Council should consider extending these cafe street permits indefinitely.”
In Edmonds, just north of Seattle, outdoor dining cafes have been surprisingly controversial. A program that allows restaurants to convert on-street parking spaces to outdoor cafe dining areas began in August 2020. But when debate about renewal of the program began in 2021, several councilmembers — and some local restaurant owners with existing patios who felt the legislation would unfairly help their competitors — urged the city to impose a $4,000 fee for the permits in order to protect on-street parking.
That fee increase was passed in late December, but after pushback from local restaurant owners who complained it was excessive, another council vote reduced it to $2,000, payable in four $500 installments.
Shubert Ho, who owns a number of restaurants in Edmonds, including Fire & The Feast, Bar Dojo, and Salt & Iron, helped craft the original street cafe plan and is disappointed the council passed a high permitting fee — which is being paid to private parking companies to replace lost parking spots. “It was a fairly shortsighted decision and it could have gone a lot smoother without creating all this political backfire,” Ho says.
Ho says the outdoor cafes helped save his restaurants during the early days of the pandemic, when he was forced to resort to takeout orders, continue paying rent, and lay off more than 200 employees. His business has since recovered, and he’ll pay for the permits — but he worries other restaurants will be discouraged by the high fees.
Limiting cars at Pike Place Market
Seattle’s iconic Pike Place Market is a vibrant food market, tourist destination, and home to more than 200 businesses, many of which are restaurants and bars. But its main thoroughfare is a strange mix of pedestrians and auto traffic that doesn’t work smoothly. Frustrated tourists in rental cars led there by Google Maps often become locked in conflict with shoppers walking the brick-paved street. It’s striking that in recent editorials, publications on opposite ends of Seattle’s political spectrum — The Seattle Times and the Stranger — both agree something needs to change at Pike Place.
So in a comment on Twitter posted in November of last year, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said limiting car traffic on Pike Place was a “big priority for 2022.” Lewis told Eater Seattle he’s been in conversation with the Seattle Department of Transportation about what it would take to turn the street through the market into essentially a pedestrian-only street while still providing access to delivery trucks on a limited basis. “I’m talking to tons of business owners, people at the [Pike Place Market Preservation & Development Authority], and other stakeholders so we can really have discussion about what this would do to expand, enhance, and protect the market,” Lewis said. “And how can we do it in a way that respects that this is a working market?”
Lewis hasn’t proposed legislation yet, but hopes to lead a discussion in hearings and public meetings that will gather comments from those stakeholders.
Many cities in Europe and the U.S. have created pedestrian-only zones to create a more welcoming zone free of cars and their emissions. Seattle’s experiment with closing down traffic on blocks on Capitol Hill and in Ballard during the pandemic to facilitate dining and walking have generally been seen as a success. And a recent poll by the Northwest Progressive Institute found that 81% of Seattle residents support limiting car access on Pike Place.
But some restaurants and market vendors worry that supplier trucks and access for online food delivery services such as Uber Eats and DoorDash might be hindered. No restaurants contacted would go on record to criticize the proposal, and the Pike Place Market Foundation also did not respond to requests for an interview. In a recent member newsletter, the nonprofit organization Friends of the Market questioned Lewis’s proposal, writing, “During the pandemic the Pike Place Market PDA has admirably managed the Market (including street use) ... Why, now, would the Seattle City Council want to meddle in the management issues of the Market?”
Dan Bugge, owner of Matt’s in the Market, is in favor of making Pike Place pedestrian-only. “I absolutely support the idea,” he said. “It just seems silly that you have cars trying to drive though and honking at pedestrians to get out of the way,” he says. “Most people are walking down the street oblivious to what’s going on, which is fantastic. You want to be on vacation, walking with your family, and enjoying the moment.”
But Bugge, like many business owners, wants assurance that delivery trucks will have access, and he suggests opening the street to deliveries in the morning and perhaps a short window later in the day.
Economic assistance to pay off debts and bounce back from the pandemic
The past two years have been brutal for Seattle’s bars and restaurants. Nearly 20 percent of the city’s bars and restaurants permanently closed in the first six months of the pandemic, and many others are only hanging on by a thread. On top of pandemic restrictions, the economic downturn, and more people working from home, restaurants have also had to confront supply chain issues, rising food and beverage costs, and a food-service labor shortage. To work through the pandemic, many Seattle restaurants took on a heavy load of debt. “I’m in the hole about $450,000” says Oliver Bangera, owner of Nirmal’s in Pioneer Square. “The thing was to survive.”
Bangera says that though Nirmal’s received a PPP loan, his restaurant did not receive a grant from the federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF). “When we called, they said: ‘Look, we’re out of funds, so sorry about that.’” Nirmal’s wasn’t alone. Of the 7,236 restaurants in Washington state that applied for RRF, part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, only 3,247 received funds, which don’t have to be paid back. The fund’s $29 billion quickly ran out after being flooded with grant requests.
To help those restaurants that missed out, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell introduced a bill this January that would fully fund the RRF and make grant money available to restaurants who missed out in the last round. “Only about 45 percent of those who qualified for the RRF got the funding,” says Anthony Anton with the Washington Hospitality Association. “In order to qualify, you needed to show you incurred significant debt related to COVID. If we get this, we’re going to help 3,000 restaurants survive.”
Ethan Stowell, owner of Ethan Stowell Restaurants, was part of an online forum hosted by in January to talk about why continued COVID relief is still crucial for bars and restaurants even as the pandemic winds down. “You’re not talking about just losing $160,000,” Stowell said during the forum, “you’re talking about people losing homes, you’re talking about people going bankrupt, you’re talking about people ruining their credit scores and not being able to get apartments.”
According to a press release from the hospitality association, additional RRF funding didn’t make it into a bipartisan deal reached last week on a federal spending bill.
Though federal funding didn’t materialize this year, the Washington State Legislature stepped up by including $100 million in relief for the hospitality industry in their latest budget. Anton says the grants proposed in the legislature would amount to about $20,000 each. “That’s probably the next and best hope for additional relief,” he explains. Another bill passed in this session will reduce liquor licenses due to be renewed or issued between April 1, 2022, and December 31, 2023 by 50 percent.
“Given half a chance, what we’ll do is have more restaurants, and we’ll create more jobs,” says Bangera. He notes that just as the pandemic arrived in 2020, Nirmal’s was working to open a second restaurant in Bellevue. But he had to postpone, and he’s been required to pay more than $100,000 in property taxes on the new space even though the second location has yet to open. “In the new restaurant, we’ll hire between 30 and 35 people,” Bangera says. “Small businesses are the ones that create those jobs.”
Last year, Seattle’s Office of Economic Development awarded more than $4 million in small business stabilization grants that will be paid out this year. But some restaurant owners are calling for more tax relief at the city and county level. Rodriguez, who owns The Station, says the city could find more ways to directly assist small restaurant owners. “We live in a very rich city,” he said, “and obviously we depend on small businesses. We are the backbone of this city’s economy.”
Councilmember Nelson ran on a platform of providing relief to small businesses, including restaurants and bars. “This sector employs a lot of people, from dishwashers to servers and admin,” she says. She’ll consider proposing a temporary suspension of the city’s business and occupation tax for small businesses but didn’t offer a timeline of when that legislation would be filed.
Though Seattle’s minimum wage increased this year to $17.27 (or $15.75/hour for businesses under 500 workers and waitstaff who receive tips) most restaurants are already finding wages high due to a shortage of servers and kitchen staff. Many service industry workers chose to leave the industry for good or retire during the pandemic, and that’s left restaurants in the state facing a deficit of 41,000 workers, Anton says.
Add those shortages to delays in obtaining some ingredients due to the supply chain crisis, and it’s going to affect service. Anton asks customers to be patient. “We’re making a plea to customers to show grace to your servers,” he says. “Know that we want to deliver great service and great food. But we’re going to continue to see these challenges well into 2022. We ask that Seattle show the hospitality industry hospitality.”