We like to hold up Melrose Market as a jewel of local food culture and civic preservation, and just a damn beautiful place to go to dinner or buy a rib eye and some Washington chevre. But some of the food hall's most notable occupants say they’re struggling to stay open amidst the construction all around them. One shop is leaving the market entirely.
Calf and Kid owner Sheri LaVigne says three major construction projects, unfolding one after another around Melrose Market's triangular footprint, have closed streets, blocked sidewalks, and seized up parking. They have hurt her business to the point that she is moving her destinationworthy cheese shop out of Melrose Market, and into her cheese bar, Culture Club, over on 12th Avenue.
All of 2015 was painful, she says, but the holidays were especially rough; she sold about half as much as she normally does, grim numbers that sealed the deal for her move. “I’m sad to leave Melrose,” she says. “I agonized over it. It’s been my home for five years, but the only way I can save this business is to move it into the bar.”
Calf and Kid will shutter its Melrose Market digs in May; LaVigne says neighboring sandwich shop Homegrown will take over her space and use it for more seating.
Russ Flint, owner of Rain Shadow Meats, says sales have dropped between 13 and 20 percent each year since construction began in earnest in 2013, while his newer Pioneer Square location remains steady. Obviously there could be tons of factors at play here, but Flint points to instances when construction shut down Melrose on a Friday or plans called for blocking all street parking the entire week of Thanksgiving (those closure dates changed after some serious pushback from Melrose Market businesses). If you’re performing repair work on a major city thoroughfare, these are the times that cause the least disruption. If you operate a business that sells food (like, say, heritage Thanksgiving turkeys), it’s the financial equivalent of a sucker punch.
Flint and his fiancee Anna Wallace have been talking to the media these past few days, trying to get the word out about the market's struggles, in hopes the city will consider the existing businesses when granting permits, like temporary parking bans that last, unnecessarily, until 7pm. "Right now it seems like it's done without any thought or regard to the community," says Flint. "It's just convenience for construction workers or developers."
While Flint has no intention of leaving, he was also pretty candid that a few more years of these conditions might not give him a choice.
Matt Dillon's restaurant, Sitka and Spruce, anchors Melrose Market and earns tons of national prestige. Recently though, he's had to send staff home early due to empty seats; at one point, nearby construction work made the dining room too loud for anybody to be in the restaurant.
If you're remotely familiar with Dillon, it's probably not a surprise the Seattle native is no fan of the mixed-use developments sprouting up around Melrose Market, replacing neighborhood icons like Bauhaus Coffee. When he moved the restaurant to Capitol Hill in 2010, he says, it was a small building surrounded by other small buildings. "We couldn't see this coming."
In a neighborhood dense with high-end restaurants, he worries diners have no incentive to navigate the construction tangle to come to his restaurant, its James Beard–worthy menu notwithstanding. And in an industry that lives and dies on hospitality, he knows customers can hold a restaurant responsible for the difficulty involved in getting there.
"I had a guy who said it was my fault: 'you need to do more; why would you even open a restaurant here?'" says the chef. "What do you want me to do, pay for your Uber? I've actually been thinking about doing that."
The financial squeeze of construction projects is nothing new, just ask the businesses trying to stay afloat on 23rd Avenue right now, or Scott Staples, who told me earlier this year that construction-related hardship was a big reason he turned Restaurant Zoe into an event space. And the potential for conflict between incoming neighbors over existing ones isn't going away any time soon, at least not in Seattle. Some of this inconvenience is unavoidable, a tradeoff for doing business in a city that’s booming (and an incentive to leave cars at home). But guys like Dillon and Flint hope their persistence can give existing restaurants and small local businesses a voice in how construction impacts them.
The Excelsior project that's in full thrust at Melrose and Pine, will include tons of underground parking, which should theoretically make it easier to stop in for brunch or to buy a hanger steak (though sadly no cheese). Until then, a word of advice: If you're trying to park in the area, look closely at the dates and times posted on any temporary no parking signs; they're often put out days in advance, or left standing long after the restrictions have lifted.