Seattle restaurateur: ‘The effects of the pandemic are nowhere near over’
Oct 12, 2022, 5:00 AM | Updated: Oct 13, 2022, 12:45 pm
(Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash)
Restaurants may seem back to normal, with packed dining rooms and hard-to-get reservations, but “the effects of the pandemic are nowhere near over for restaurants,” said Brandon Petit, chef and owner of Capitol Hill’s Dino’s Tomato Pie and Delancey, an award winning pizzeria in Ballard.
“Many restaurants have had no profitable months in years and have only survived because of huge amounts of government support,” Petit continued. “Delancey and Dino’s together got close to a million dollars of government support through PPP, and all of the different programs, but it’s still going to have hundreds of thousands of dollars of loans to repay from that EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan).”
Restaurants may be operating a bit differently, and there are a few things Petit wants restaurant lovers to understand.
A lot of folks got used to tipping on takeout during the pandemic, but they don’t understand why some restaurants are still adding a service charge on to-go orders.
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“Without that service charge, there is not enough money to pay anyone,” said Petit. “When I figured it out the other day, you would have to do a 10% service charge just to cover the takeout boxes, and in order to actually have takeout be profitable, it’s pretty normal in many circumstances to need a 20% service charge.”
It’s all based in psychology, according to Petit, who states a customer will balk at a $7 beer, but would gladly pay $6 and leave a dollar tip.
But restaurants have had to raise their prices.
“Before the pandemic, our flour was about $17 for a 50-pound bag, and last week when we bought flour, it was $70,” said Petit. “Lettuce was about $18 or $20 a case and now that’s between $50 and $70. Prices have ballooned so much that it’s really frightening to think of how expensive things are becoming.”
Petit says 13 years ago, when he first opened Delancey, a sausage pizza cost $12. It cost $15 before the pandemic and now the same pie costs $22.
“I still don’t know if that’s high enough,” said Petit. “In this new world we live in, where it’s expensive to live in cities and goods and services are expensive, in order to pay a living wage, restaurants just need to be much more expensive. It’s not uncommon in Seattle for dishwashers to make $30 to $35 an hour.”
Will restaurants soon be places only the elite can afford?
“A lot of my friends, and owners I know, didn’t go out to open a playground for the rich and famous,” said Petit. “We wanted inclusive community spaces. So that kind of brings existential issues of, if that’s the case, do I even want to be running these spaces?”
Petit emphasizes that restaurants are businesses and deserve to make a profit. It’s not uncommon for a restaurant owner to make less than its staff. They pay their expenses and staff first, and take whatever is left over.
“Owners get emails all the time from people complaining that things are expensive from people that make two to three times more money than the owners do,” said Petit. “It’s really hard to have sympathy for this tech worker who makes more money than any of the staff and significantly more money than the owners.”
He hopes diners will have empathy for the struggles restaurants are still going through.
“Delancey has been open 13 years, and in the first 10 years, we had maybe one or two exceptional closures; a snowstorm or bad flu going around and staff was sick,” said Petit. “In the last three years, we have closed multiple times for wildfires, we’ve closed for not having enough staff, we’ve closed for COVID exposures, we’ve had heat waves and it was too hot and all of our refrigerators broke. Civil unrest, the mayor had a couple of days of curfew during some of the protests, and we had government-mandated closures. So there’s a huge amount of closures that are hugely expensive and disruptive.”
So why own a restaurant?
“That’s a very deep question,” said Petit. “I think people do it because they love it so much. It’s the same thing with teachers and artists; they love what they do and then our society takes advantage. People are so excited that they’ll do it to follow their dream, even if they’re making less money than being a bartender at a dive bar. I love the sense of community, I love hospitality, I love feeding people. I love it, but it’s still scary.”