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Seattle restaurants are closing, cutting staff in the wake of coronavirus

(Artem Beliaikin/Unsplash)

“Today is worse than yesterday and yesterday was worse than the day before,” said Tamara Murphy, co-owner and executive chef at Terra Plata, a farm to table Mediterranean restaurant in Seattle.

With thousands of people working from home and others trying to avoid public spaces due to coronavirus concerns, restaurants are seeing empty dining rooms.

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“This is not anything that we’ve ever seen before, and I have seen a lot,” Murphy said. “I’ve been in Seattle for 30 years. I’ve seen the dot-com crash, I’ve seen 9/11, I’ve been through two recessions; I have not ever seen anything quite like this. The hemorrhaging is so deep and so fast, that’s what’s truly terrifying. The trickle down is just incredible.”

On Tuesday, Seattle restaurants Local 360 and Arriba Cantina announced that they are permanently closing due to coronavirus. Davis Family Restaurant Group owners Kevin and Terresa Davis are temporarily closing all six of their restaurants including Steelhead Diner in Pike Place. And Taylor Hoang, co-owner of the Pho Cyclo Cafes and 10 restaurants in SeaTac Airport, said they decided to close their Redmond Vietnamese restaurant when they were down to eight diners a day.

“District 1 Saigon is located about five blocks from the Microsoft campus,” Hoang said. “Last Wednesday, when we heard that Microsoft was recommending that most of their employees work from home until at least March 25, that was the last straw for us. Our sales plummeted, probably by 60-70%. That made us realize we needed to close until at least [the end of the month]. We depend a lot on Microsoft employees, we have big lunches and catering.”

After meeting with her employees, Hoang continues to pay some of their wages and is making sure they don’t lose their low-income housing. But restaurants operate on thin margins, with big expenses, so most can’t pay salaries when no money is coming in.

Event companies have been hit hard, too. Ileigh Reynolds co-owns Animate Productions.

“The bulk of our work is corporate events and non-profit galas, holiday parties, product launches, award shows and fundraising galas,” Reynolds said.

In the span of four days, every single event Animate Productions had scheduled for March, April, and May canceled.

Many restaurants and small businesses are run by couples, so the restaurant is their family’s only income.

“My wife and I are co-owners of the business so basically at this point we have zero income,” Reynolds said. “There’s nothing coming in right now for most people in the events industry. We’ve had to ask our office staff to take unpaid leave.”

When restaurants and event companies aren’t doing business, neither are their vendors.

“We’re laying off our employees, we’re reducing hours,” Murphy explained. “I spend a lot of hours with our farmers, they’re feeling it. We’re not ordering from them. Because I have such a long history and relationship with people in Seattle, I’m getting texts constantly like, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do.'”

What are they going to do?

“I don’t mean to be an alarmist, but I do believe that this is changing the restaurant scene,” Murphy said. “I don’t think it will ever be the same, quite honestly. We know there are some people who have shut down their restaurants already with kind of that idea that they’ll be reopening in April. But having to rehire and all of that is incredibly expensive. I don’t know if that means rent forgiveness.”

Amazon is forgiving the rent for the restaurants and small businesses operating in buildings they own. They’ve also created a $5 million fund to help small businesses like bars, restaurants, and food trucks in South Lake Union stay afloat. Businesses can apply for a grant.

Meanwhile, restaurateurs are encouraging people to spend money at restaurants or, at the very least, order takeout.

“I guess one of the positive things about this is, I don’t think there is a restaurant that is cleaner now,” Murphy said. “We are washing our hands every 30 minutes, we are disinfecting the bathroom, we have sanitizer wipes. We are taking every precaution. We want them to come out and keep living their lives. We are certainly there.”

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like William Shatner, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig.

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