On Sunday, Jill Gallagher was on Facebook, reading posts by Tamara Murphy, the chef and owner of Capitol Hill’s Terra Plata. Murphy's been particularly outspoken about the impact of coronavirus on many restaurants: “From fish monger, to cheese guy, to produce company, to wine sales person, to liquor rep, meat co, farmers, it’s all tanking…. We are in triage mode. We are laying people off.”
Jill is not in the industry (“I just like restaurants”), but she wanted to help. On Monday, she took to Facebook herself and started a group, now called Seattle Restaurant Support, a sort of dining club for dark times. “Hey everybody, here’s my idea,” she wrote. “We hit up one or two restaurants per week and inundate them with love and tips.”
There's also a digital tip jar: People who can't attend kick tips to Jill and she adds them onto her bill at the end of the night. She invited some friends to join the group, and 30 or so did. Then, within a few hours it was at 100. By Wednesday, 20 had RSVP’d for a Thursday dinner at Terra Plata. And members have plans to meet at Tai Tung on Friday for lunch, Stoneburner on Sunday, and Loulay on Tuesday. Jill's accruing a list of places that are saying they need help (so far it includes Kamonegi, Sushi Kappo Tamura, Brimmer and Heeltap, Nue, Cactus, and restaurants in the International District).
The group kicked things off Wednesday with a happy hour at Adana (which lost 40 reservations last week). Jill showed up with $200 from the digital tip jar. Also in tow: her husband Bill, her neighbor Kelly, and their friend Brandon Barnato, who runs Bar Cotto across the street. It’s been struggling too, but less than many other places. On Thursday, not far away, Carrello and Altura announced their temporary closure. “Last week, we were probably down about 20 to 25 percent," Brandon said. "Thank goodness—I mean, 20 percent, we can still operate.”
Kyleen, a “friend of a friend of a friend” of Jill's, came too. She’d been in the process of moving to the neighborhood and someone sent her a link to the Facebook group. “I was like, I'm starving. I had nothing to eat… I showed up, like, ‘Hi. You don't know me. I don't know you. We're about to have dinner together.’”
They sat together at Adana’s curved bar, drinking cocktails. Bill and Brandon were eating sauteed shishito peppers with ponzu aioli. Bill passed a pepper down to Jill. She took the stem by her fingers and bit. “I’m gonna get the spicy one and I'm gonna start crying,” she said.
Wasn't she concerned, I asked, about prompting more public gatherings just as officials are restricting them? “Some people are just not worried about it,” she said, “because we're super vigilant about hand washing and don't have the underlying medical issues that will make us vulnerable.” (To be clear, even for healthy people, most experts are recommending we avoid gathering in places like restaurants—way to, if nothing else, "flatten the curve.") She’s more anxious about the workers and suppliers at risk, and that restaurants will keep closing. “When I first moved here, 25 years ago, I swear it was like Denny's, McDonald's, and Beth’s Cafe… I don't want to go back to those days.”
Already, similar groups have sprouted: Support Renton Eats, Eastside Restaurant Support. By Wednesday, Seattle Restaurant Support had more than 400 members (as of Friday morning, it’s surpassed 1,100). “Could we say it's spreading… as fast as coronavirus?” Kyleen said, breaking into a faux-evil laugh. “I’m the worst, I’m awful.”
“You’re far from the worst,” Jill said. “I don’t know if you saw that today I changed the group name?” (Originally it was Seattle Restaurant Help.) “I seriously was like, Seattle Masticators… do it… don’t do it. For once in my life I’m gonna show restraint.”
Soon, across the bar, someone's food arrived, a small dish carried out in a sort of basket. Jill and Kyleen were curious. "I think that might be a find out what it is and order 10 kind of thing," Jill said.
Update, March 17: Over the weekend Seattle Restaurant Support started offering other ways to support restaurants, including an aggregate of takeout/deliver, "resources for unemployment, loans, free meals, employment opportunities etc." Jill Gallagher told me in an email. It now has over 5,600 members.