Social distancing plus lockdowns across the country have caused most restaurant owners to close shop. In the state of Washington, officials were encouraging restaurants and bars to close as early as the first week of March. By March 16, 2020, Washington Governor Jay Inslee ordered Seattle into full lockdown.
Revenues plummeted, incurring catastrophic losses to restaurant owners. With dining rooms shuttered and take-out options limited across Emerald City with limited delivery demand, operations have ceased completely at most restaurants and bars.
To cushion the economic blow to the restaurant industry, the city offered to provide grants of $10,000 apiece. The funds for the grant were allocated from a federal community development block grant. Most of the restaurants selected for the grant were from Rainier Valley, Chinatown International District, Belltown and University areas.
The only problem? Only 250 grants were available. When the city opened the application window, 9,000 businesses applied. Overwhelmed by the number of applications, municipal officials selected winners randomly using a lottery.
The incredible disparity — 9,000 applicants for 250 grants — encapsulates the dire state of the industry succinctly. Seattle attempted to triage by dividing applicants into two categories: high-displacement and low-displacement. Restaurants in high-displacement neighborhoods were given higher preference during the lottery procedure. In the end, the distinction barely made a difference.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has said that she is trying to extend funding. She is also considering other ways to help medium and small restaurants. Even President Trump tweeted today that he is asking for a second cash infusion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which has completely exhausted its $355 billion in funding that largely benefited small businesses like restaurants. Yet the numbers remain dire.
Seattle has enacted moratoriums on rent increases for restaurant and non-profit tenants. It is also providing several programs to assist in deferring rent payments, especially for businesses suffering from revenue losses of 30%. Washington State continues lobbying for additional federal aid.
New measures require property owners to work with the business owners on a payment plan. Municipal recommendations for COVID-19 rent abatements start at six months and extend “until the business environment normalizes” in some government programs.
Although totaling less than 3% of applicants, 250 small businesses did receive their $10,000 grants. One of the lucky winners was Chera Almag of Hood Famous Café, who trained with renowned chef James Beard. Three months ago, Almag would never had imagined closing doors. Yet today, that $10,000 grant is the only way Hood Famous Café is able to pay rent and retain three of its employees.
To sustain the business, Almag’s café started with delivery during the quarantine. Almag started just delivering desserts. Within two days, the owners realized that it was not the optimum mode of business. They had to stop deliveries to re-strategize, change delivery routes, minimize delivery costs, and comply with “no contact” delivery practices even for clients in high-rise, difficult-to-access buildings. The onerous cost of working with delivery apps forced café owners to fulfill many deliveries themselves. Better than closing doors for good.
Café Racer is another restaurant that received a $10,000 grant. With the help, they were able to pay off rent, expenses, liability insurance, and utilities. The owner, Jeff Ramsey, is confident about bringing his restaurant back to life once conditions normalize. For him, his restaurant is not just a café but a critical part of the community and home for local artists.
Zheng Café has not been that lucky. Specializing in Wuhan cuisine from China, as that became the epicenter of the coronavirus, Zheng Café has been hit very hard. Ever since locals learned about the geographic origins virus, orders dropped, even despite assurances that none of the restaurant’s ingredients are sourced from China. Owner Greg Wetzel informed Seattle Times that they were bracing the effects of Coronavirus since January, and they have unfortunately faced a violent incident when someone smashed their front window with a rock.
El Parche Columbian Restaurant is another restaurant in North Seattle that received the $10,000 grant. Mario Medina, the owner of the restaurant is using the grant to pay employees, rent, and vendors. The owner believes that the amount should be sufficient to stay in business for at least two months. Another recipient, Fowzi Abdi of Banana Grill, believes that the $10,000 will be sufficient for the next six weeks.
Apart from working on extending assistance to more restaurants and lobbying for additional state and federal aid, Mayor Durkan would be assisting restaurants that have applied for the federal grant. On April 14, she announced an additional 1,000 grocery vouchers worth $800 apiece. She continues supporting additional funding to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).