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Local restaurant owner unsure how anyone will stay in business if restrictions remain

The exterior of Smarty Pants in Seattle's Georgetown. (Photo courtesy of Smarty Pants)

The closures were just supposed to be two months when everyone was told about it. At the start, there was even a lack of clarity about whether restaurants and businesses needed to close at all. But many small business owners were forced to close in March, at least in Washington state.

Some closed expecting they could survive, thinking maybe it’ll be a few months, but they’ll come out of it. It was always going to be a setback, sure, but not a coup de grace.

Tim Ptak owns three restaurants in the area — Hudson and Smarty Pants in Seattle, and Smarty Pants Garage in Burien. All three have been drastically affected by coronavirus. So how are things going for him now?

“Well, one of our locations is closed, again. We opened on two occasions there with relatively no success,” Ptak told KIRO Nights. “So the Hudson location is currently shuttered. We have both Smarty Pants in Georgetown and Smarty Pants in Burien open with the governor’s mandated limited seating, both inside and out. And then, of course, to-go food.”

While his restaurants are operating at 50% capacity, Ptak says their bills have not gone down by 50%.

“It’s just tough to keep our heads above water,” he said. “… We have the good fortune of two large patios, one in each location. If it wasn’t for those patios, I just don’t see how we’d be able to do it.”

Initially, Ptak had to lay off about 60 people, he said, but has been bringing them back as they’ve been able to and as the employees have felt safe to return.

Between the employees feeling unsafe, and with the unemployment benefits being what they are, with an extra $600 bonus right now from the federal government, Ptak said a lot of employees are choosing to stay home since they actually make more money on unemployment than they do working.

Ptak did apply for the PPP loans to help his businesses through the closures.

“We applied for the PPP at all three of our locations, and we actually received it at all three of the locations,” he said. “Navigating those loans has been interesting in that the rules are just ever changing. Initially, we had eight weeks to spend the money, now it is 24 weeks. The percentages have changed, … we were in a rush to spend it so we would hopefully be forgiven the loans at the end. And then after we burned through about half of it, they changed the policies so now we’re struggling to figure out how to best spend it that’ll buy us as much time as we’ll need to get through this pandemic.”

Parts of the loan were helpful, Ptak admits, but it didn’t work well for the employees.

“Once we accepted the PPP and we were trying to follow the terms of the loan, we had a mass walkout at the one location because people were making more on unemployment with the extra … payment that the federal government was paying out,” he said.

And no one can blame them, show host Mike Lewis, who’s a business owner himself, and Ptak agreed. If you’re trying to make rent, your compass is going to orient at whatever is going to get you there.

How does Ptak see the restaurant industry coming out of this situation, if at all?

“Until there’s an actual vaccine, I don’t see how this is sustainable,” he said. “I mean, at Hudson, we were thriving before this pandemic. And once COVID came on, we couldn’t get people in the door.”

“I think customers don’t feel safe going out,” Ptak added. “Like I said, luckily, we have the patios, the outdoor, it’s summertime. But if they don’t make progress with COVID by the time fall comes, … I don’t know how anyone’s going to stay in business.”

Ptak also expects customer habits will change permanently, even post-vaccine.

“I think with people being forced to fend for their selves cooking at home, … that will probably become more of their routine. … I know the service industry people that we rely on aren’t going to have the savings that they had before, so they’ll probably be pinching pennies like the rest of us,” he said. “We’re not going to have the expendable budget like we did before all of this. I think it’s going to take quite a while for everyone to recover.”

Many business owners have unfortunately reached a place where it almost makes more sense to close and not keep bleeding their life savings away when faced with something that has an indefinite end, such as the pandemic.

Ptak said he doesn’t necessarily have a solution, but he does wish leaders had been more proactive.

“If they’re going to mandate masks, I wish they had mandated masks April 1,” he said. “I mean, anything that we could do to help curb this.”

He also expressed that it doesn’t feel like the rules are being applied evenly or fairly across all industries. The example he provided is the self-check stands at grocery stores aren’t always wiped down between customers, so everyone is touching the same screen. But restaurants have to make single-use menus.

“I spent $150 printing menus last week,” Ptak said.

“There are things they could do to help my industry,” he added. “I don’t see why we couldn’t put the menus in plastic sleeves that get wiped down … little details.”

Moving forward, Ptak said he is trying to adapt so his businesses can survive.

“We’re trying to adjust our business,” he said. “We’re currently working on a retail line so we can sell our sauces and dressings to go, … just trying to think outside the box, anything we can do to help sustain the brand that we’ve spent 18 years building.”

Listen to KIRO Nights weeknights from 7 – 10 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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