As Seattle Restaurants Restructure, Many Industry Workers Worry

Servers, prep cooks, and others are struggling as COVID-19 forces restaurants to trim staff or shutter altogether.

By Sam Luikens March 20, 2020

Most restaurant industry workers depend on tips for their income. 

When Erik Pfanschmidt joined the waitstaff at one of Tom Douglas’s restaurants, he "pictured it being the place I would retire from." Now, the 20-year veteran of the industry is one of about 800 Tom Douglas employees and countless others in the hospitality industry who, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, find themselves jobless.

“I loved where I worked,” Pfanschmidt said. But he’s taken steps to stabilize since Douglas closed 12 of his 13 restaurants on March 15: filing for unemployment, doing his taxes, and refinancing his mortgage. He recommends the Full Service Restaurant Alliance as a resource for friends in the industry. Despite his situation, Pfanschmidt keeps faith in Douglas. “He wouldn't do this unless it was the only way he sees to possibly keep the company alive in the future.” 

Spring usually signals a time when Seattle restaurants come out of their slow winter slump. Early birds flock to happy hours on the patio, and events like Seattle Restaurant Week fill reservation books across the city. But since COVID-19 absorbed Seattle, the future of something as innocuous as getting a pint with a friend remains uncertain: On March 16, governor Jay Inslee announced statewide measures limiting in-person services in businesses like restaurants and bars.

But Seattle’s restaurant industry felt the damage even before major moves to contain the virus. By the time the World Health Organization called the outbreak an official pandemic on March 11, many restaurants had already closed down—some temporarily, and others for good.

Back when news of novel coronavirus seemed abstract, David Valencia worked to redesign the menu for a popular restaurant near Pike Place Market. On February 14, that employer dissolved the business, along with Valencia’s health insurance. He then took a prep cook position in the catering department of a major Seattle restaurant group; when the coronavirus showed up in Seattle, Valencia was promptly laid off (again).

Washington state’s Initiative 1433, which went into effect in 2018, requires employers to offer one hour of paid sick leave per 40 hours worked. Valencia hadn't worked the catering job long enough to get much. “I personally have no stability and I am very afraid of the future and for my fellow cooks,” he said.

Restaurants across the city started trimming hours as soon as it was clear that customers were staying home. Last Friday, Auryanna Holmes was still working, but not much. A server at Zaika, a new Indian fusion restaurant on Capitol Hill, Holmes relies on tips to cover her rent and phone bill. “Tips are my bread and butter,” she said.

Following Sunday’s emergency declaration, Zaika cut its dine-in option, switching to take-out service. Zaika now operates without Holmes (and most of its front-of-house staff). She's applying for unemployment. “It’s tough,” she said. “I worry if I’ll be able to afford rent next month.” (On March 17, the Seattle City Council approved a 60-day moratorium on evictions, but that rent will still be due, with evictions back on the table, when the 60 days are up.)

For Sabrina Schneider, head baker for a Ballard restaurant, the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 doesn’t stop with a public forced to stay in. She wonders about the other working parts of the industry, like the suppliers. “What if they get shut down?” But Schneider tries to stay hopeful: “A lot of us have been keeping each other afloat.”

Schneider still has her job. And despite the ban on eating at restaurants, she and her team, along with many others, continue to supply food for take-out: soups for reheating, bread and meat for sandwiches, undressed salads in clamshells, and boxes of cookies. “I am hoping that by providing smiles and baked goods to people, I can alleviate a portion of that stress and fear,” Schneider said. “We’re trying to figure it out together.”

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