Hard Winter

As Seattle Reduces Contact, Restaurants Are Hurting

Chinese restaurants took the first coronavirus business hits. Now, others' sales are starting to drop.

By Stefan Milne March 6, 2020

Lark had seven of its buisness dinners for March cancel on Wednesday. 

Back in February, without anyone telling them to, people started avoiding Seattle’s Chinese restaurants, fearing coronavirus. Some have seen business drop by half. Now, though, other restaurants are beginning to feel the effects of the rising tide of anxiety.

Kelly Ronan, an owner of Lark on Capitol Hill, says she had seven business dinners booked for March. All canceled on Wednesday—the day that King County recommended people with higher risk avoid gatherings. The companies are no longer coming to Seattle. Reservations going into the weekend are also light: 50 people on the books for Friday, when they’d usually have 100 to 150.

Seattle is not a “ghost town." I was at a packed theater opening last night (The Stranger has a list of what events are and aren't canceled). Restaurants remain open—and I ate at a couple yesterday, and there were humans there—but many businesses are feeling some degree of pinch, and dreading that it will persist. Hillel Echo-Hawk, who runs Birch Basket Catering, focused on Indigenous foods, says she had a couple cancelations this week, one in late April. Jonathan Fleming, who runs Pioneer Square D&E, says it’s been a slower week, maybe due to coronavirus, maybe not. He’s mostly concerned about not getting big business if events, like this weekend’s Sounders game, start getting canceled (as of Friday morning, it's still on). For now D&E, like other restaurants, is staying vigilant with cleanliness: refreshing sanitizer frequently, wiping down door handles and check presenters, telling employees to stay home if sick. 

Places like Monsoon and Ba Bar have staffs sanitizing all surfaces in the restaurants twice a day. But owner Eric Banh has seen business drop 15–20 percent this week, especially at the Ba Bar in South Lake Union (though delivery has been up a bit).

Others who rely on Amazon and its vast staff for business are smarting too. “The thing that’s really hit us is Amazon’s closure,” says Alex Pemoulie, director of finance for Renee Erickson's Sea Creatures restaurant group. Sea Creatures runs a number of Denny Triangle restaurants like Willmott’s Ghost, inside the Amazon Spheres. The company, she says, “canceled all of their events through April. I mean, that’s tens of thousands of dollars… I think we’re at $50,000 right now.”

Across all its restaurants, Sea Creatures’ business was down 10 percent this week. Certain locations are doing well below that though. Some full service spots dropped by 25 percent. The Great State Burger in Bellevue Square is down 50 percent. 

Everyone I spoke to was most concerned about how long this might roll on for, and what it looks like if the isolation gets worse. Restaurants already run on the tightest of margins, with high overhead. Ronan at Lark was frightened by the prospect of layoffs if business doesn’t bounce back. 

Pemoulie, who came back to Seattle a few years ago after a long time on the East Coast, is holding out hope. She’s used to weather events that wipe out business—hurricanes, snow storms. “In my experience, there's a limit to how long people will stay home.”

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