Nearly two weeks ago—which is to say another lifetime—Charlie Dunmire chalked hot pink squares, six feet apart, on the sidewalk outside her Georgetown cake shop, Deep Sea Sugar and Salt. She ran the register at an outside table and kept all her employees baking away, contact-free, in the kitchen while COVID-19 concerns shut down schools and offices in droves.
If you’ve ever had one of Deep Sea’s fantastical layer cakes (or platonically marvelous cupcakes), it’s probably not a surprise that those chalk squares saw plenty of occupants. Lines got long. Despite—or more likely because of—our societal norms experiencing a state of free fall, “We stayed just as busy, if not busier than we were,” says Dunmire.
Businesses like hers are exempt from our current “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” situation. But this Wednesday, she and her eight employees deep cleaned the kitchen and portioned perishable ingredients like milk and eggs among themselves. Deep Sea is closed until further notice. “Cake is not essential,” Dunmire wrote when she announced the closure on Instagram, “and I feel the responsible thing to do to keep the team, our customers, and the entire Georgetown community as safe and healthy as possible.”
Our statewide shutdown of bars and dining rooms on March 15 prompted Seattle’s restaurant industry to reimagine its entire business model in a matter of hours. Now an interregnum originally intended to be 14 days seems unlikely to ease up any time soon and some members of Seattle’s food community are reassessing how—and if—to stay viable.
Dunmire shifted her Georgetown cake shop to takeout mode even before governor Jay Inslee made it law. She worried about her father, a full-time Deep Sea employee who comes in contact with every plate and fork. But her unease continued as staff members worked themselves ragged in a moment when health and immunity is especially important. Drawing people from around the city to Georgetown, even in a socially distanced queue, felt like the wrong message when everybody is supposed to stay home.
This past week, big Seattle names like Molly Moon's, Evergreens, Frankie and Jo’s, and all things Marination (including Super Six in Columbia City) all closed their doors citing a desire to halt the spread of COVID-19. Canlis, which became a national and local example when it swiftly shape-shifted into a fast food operation, retired its drive-through, which fed roughly 1,000 people in a two-hour period each day (morning bagel service was similarly bonkers). From now on, Canlis’s staff will focus on “family meal” deliveries, leaving dinner for two and a bottle of wine on customers’ porches.
Of course for many restaurants, closing voluntarily could mean never opening again. Places across the city have elevated the safety-oriented hustle into an art form, from Jerk Shack’s kid-friendly heat-at-home meals to Homer handing over bags of rice bowls and pita sandwiches from its barely cracked take-out window. As Dunmire puts it, “There are so many right decisions to make now.”
Still, the calculus is complicated and invariably painful. Rachel’s Ginger Beer loses money by keeping its three Seattle locations open, says owner Rachel Marshall, but putting managers on short-term layoffs would disrupt their health insurance. Dunmire was able to give her staff two weeks’ pay when she closed, but without tips, she wonders if filing for unemployment would have brought them more money.
Spinasse and Artusi on Capitol Hill also shuttered this week, after the staff mobilized a take-out system in a kitchen that usually cooks for diners’ special occasions. “It was a weird, positive team-building thing,” says chef Stuart Lane of that initial scramble to create a new menu and framework. Night after night, sales numbers jumped higher, and orders kept the entire kitchen staff busy. But like Dunmire, Lane and his staff felt uneasy about drawing people out of their homes. Some employees had concerns about their own safety, and orders big enough to feed a 12-top made Lane worry about aiding, in an indirect way, any sort of large gathering.
When Inslee told people flat-out this past Monday to stop going out, Lane and his partners made the tough call, it was time to close. It has hard to set his ego aside, he admits; giving up runs counter a chef’s instinct to grind it out, to do whatever it takes.
“The whole reason we did any of this was to take care of our people,” says Lane. But with a week’s added hindsight, taking care of them economically didn’t feel as important as protecting their basic health. “Not to belittle my profession but it’s not worth it. It’s not worth people that we love getting sick.”