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New restaurants are opening in the middle of the pandemic — but why?

Seattle's Local Tide opened during the pandemic and shifted its original concept to a more to-go friendly menu. (Photo courtesy of Local Tide)

Every couple of weeks I get an email about a new restaurant opening in Seattle. And in the words of Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City: I couldn’t help but wonder, why would you ever start a new business in the middle of a pandemic?

“I signed the lease October 11,” said Aaron Tekulve, chef and owner of Surrell in Seattle’s Madison Valley. “A lot of people have sunk hundreds of thousands of dollars into a space. They don’t have the option to not do this.”

“We started our build out February 17,” said Martha Fletcher, who is planning to open Cairde Public House in mid-November. “Just about a month later, the COVID shutdown happened and by then it’s too late.”

“I signed my lease back in March of last year [2019],” said Victor Steinbrueck, chef and owner of Seattle’s new Local Tide and grandson of the Victor Steinbrueck who led the charge against developers to make Pike Place Market a historic district in the early 1970s.

Local Tide is Steinbrueck’s first restaurant, and he was able to open in August after much delay.

“Extremely daunting,” Steinbrueck said. “I had numerous conversations with consultants and other people in the industry that advised me not to open and even to pull out, depending on how much money was put in. Obviously not an option for me, too much had gone into it at this point. I wouldn’t think about doing that anyway. We all understood what we were getting into, and we were ready for what came.”

What came next was shifting almost entirely to takeout and a redesigned menu because his original seafood concept wasn’t going to hold up to takeout containers that could sit in a car for half an hour.

Unfortunately, some clueless customers aren’t giving restaurants a break. Front of house manager, Nanette Jackson, says people can be unnecessarily harsh on Yelp.

“For things that are just so minute and unbelievable,” Jackson said. “So, the crab roll. You can only order the crab roll when you come, you have to stand in line. People stand out here for an hour, so even if you call me and you say, ‘Hey, can I order a crab roll?’ I’m going to say no because these people have been standing here and it’s respectful. This one guy left a two-star review because he said, ‘The lady on the phone wouldn’t let me order a crab roll.’ In a world where we live based off ratings and social media, you don’t understand the impact of when you do that.”

Tekulve was set to open his first restaurant, Surrell, just four days after the shutdown happened. When he eventually opened in July for takeout and limited seating, he could no longer afford a staff.

“The truth is, it’s just me,” Tekulve said. “My wife has pitched in and is working front of house, but this isn’t necessarily her profession. She works in child care. I wear every single hat in the business right now.”

He has created a super safe environment on the covered patio behind the restaurant.

“We are only seating two tables in a night and they’re only up to five guests,” Tekulve said. “Each table gets its own bathroom. We’re actually never coming to the table, we use a landing table where we drop the dishes. It keeps us at least six feet away from the tables.”

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Fletcher has owned the Blarney Stone pub near Pike Place Market since 2006. After searching for two years, she signed a lease for a new place in Queen Anne, anticipating the crowds from Kraken hockey games. COVID put a wrench in her original plan, but she hopes Cairde Public House will open mid-November. I asked her if she would have opened a second place if she knew a pandemic was coming.

“You know, I’ve thought about that a million times,” Fletcher mused. “There’s obviously one side of me that says, oh no, I wouldn’t do it. But before I bought the Blarney Stone, I tried getting ‘a real job,’ but I just love this business. Even though it’s so hard sometimes, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Even now. People think I’m crazy but I’m just trying to stay positive and stay afloat until we can move on with life and get going again. You know, I might have pulled out, but luckily I didn’t have a choice.”

I asked Tekulve the same question.

“Oh man, that is hard,” Tekulve said. “I’m going to say ‘maybe’ because I think I have better opportunity here with this space to survive this moment, especially with the complete failure that unemployment has been and continues to be. I don’t have any faith that as an independent contractor I would have gotten help.”

While others are struggling to stay afloat, Theo Dai has opened two new bubble tea shops during the pandemic. He signed his second lease in Kirkland in August and opened DIY Tea Lab just a few weeks later.

“The impact is not so bad for the bubble tea shop,” Dai said. “At least for my Newcastle [location]. But I’m also thinking maybe this is also an opportunity. Because a lot of places, they closed, meaning you can easily get a cheaper rent or get a better lease.”

Unlike a sit-down restaurant, most people already take bubble tea to-go, so the model wasn’t disrupted too badly. Dai is already looking at opening a third location in north Seattle.

Luckily, all of these owners have had forgiving landlords who gave them breaks on their rent when it was impossible for them to open earlier, as planned, during the pandemic.

Listen to Rachel Belle’s James Beard Award nominated podcast, “Your Last Meal,” featuring celebrities like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Rainn Wilson, and Greta Gerwig. Follow @yourlastmealpodcast on Instagram!

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