The “contact tracing” data collection — familiar to, say, registering on a new website but not necessarily grabbing a burger for takeout — is part of a new roster of requirements and restrictions for Washington’s restaurant and bar industry as the state prepares for its “Phase 2” loosening of the COVID-19 lockdown that could be in place in June if infection rates continue to fall.
The opportunity to restart comes with a roster of changes in business practices and resources that must be in place for restaurants, cafes, bars, and taverns around Capitol Hill to reopen. Top of mind for most owners trying to sort out what comes next for the hundreds of venues and thousands of workers across the area is how to make the new math pencil out.
“We’re going to be back where we were in 2008 with the recession,” Capitol Hill food and drink veteran John Sundstrom of Lark says. “Our hope… this is such a big reset moment for the economy and the way we look at people’s lives… there is an opportunity for change.”
State requirements issued for the industry this week include 13 points of new guidelines:
- Hand sanitizer should be available at entry for all staff and patrons (assuming supply
- No bar seating is permitted during Phase 2. If an establishment has bar seating it must be closed off to prohibit use.
- If the establishment does not offer table service, they must have protocols in place to ensure adequate social distancing at food and drink pick-up stations, and seating within their dining area.
- All parties and tables must be 5 guests or less.
- Guest occupancy must be 50% of maximum building occupancy or lower as determined by the fire code. Outdoor seating is permitted but must also be at 50% capacity. Outdoor seating does not count toward the building occupancy limit. Outdoor seating must follow all other requirements in this document.
- Tables must be placed far enough apart when measured from occupied chair to occupied chair, to ensure dine-in guests seated at a table are a minimum of 6 feet away from guests at adjacent table, or there must be a physical barrier or wall separating booths or tables.
- It is strongly suggested customers wear a cloth face covering anytime they are not seated at the table (while being seated or leaving, or while going to the restroom).
- Buffets and salad bars are not permitted at this time but may be addressed through subsequent interpretive guidance.
- If the establishment offers table service, create a daily log of all customers and maintain that daily log for 30 days, including telephone/email contact information, and time in. This will facilitate any contact tracing that might need to occur.
- Single use menus are required for in-person dining.
- Any condiments typically left on the table (ketchup, soy sauce, etc.) must be single-use or sanitized after each use.
- Restaurants must have implemented a plan to ensure proper physical distancing in
lobby/waiting areas/payment counters.
- Minimize the number of staff serving any given table. It is strongly recommended that one staff person take a table’s order, bring all of their beverages/food/utensils, take their payment, etc.
You can find the full announcement of the new requirements here.
Some changes will be trivial to manage like rules about things like ketchup bottles and single-use, disposable menus. But others like a limit to 50% occupancy and no bar seating allowed during the reopening phase could require Capitol Hill restaurants to reinvent the way they operate and change their essence on the fly.
At Lark on the backside of Pike/Pine, Sundstrom said he was still working through how the changes will fit together in a fine dining setting. “The whole thing about this is our rent is not based on half capacity,” Sundstrom said.
“With fine dining, a lot of what you get is the ambience and great service,” he said. “Going forward, that’s going to be one of the things that is difficult to address.”
And it’s not like Sundstrom and the staff he has been able to keep working haven’t been busy. They’ve already swung the business around Lark, its sister sandwich joint Slab, and Southpaw Pizza to takeout and delivery during the outbreak restrictions. Now it is time for more new ideas.
One notion on the table at Lark is transitioning to a set menu, sold in advance and limiting the interaction between customer and staff to a welcome, service, and a friendly goodbye.
“We know it’s going to be weird,” Sundstrom said.
On the other end of the Hill and much earlier in the Capitol Hill food and drink lifespan, E Roy’s Cook Weaver is also shaping strategies for reopening beyond takeout and delivery. The first thing Nile Klein and Zac Reynolds thought of is space.
“All of a sudden we have a week to open a brand new restaurant,” Klein said.
SAVED BY OUTSIDE DINING?
The Loveless Building restaurant is a cozy venue. Klein and Reynolds said one strategy that could help would be to add outside table service. Inspired by the Vilnius strategy of creating a “vast open-air cafe,” some level of relaxation of Seattle’s sidewalk cafe rules could help.
Chef Reynolds said that, like Sundstrom, Cook Weaver was also considering transitioning to a set menu for sit-down customers.
“It might be challenging for us to have the same kind of revenue, so we’re maybe thinking about a tasting menu,” Reynolds said. “But I’m wary about that because it’s not really been our market.”
In the meantime, a rent “hiatus” from their building landlords is helping even as it has been difficult to keep staff.
Space and room for customers is also a key factor in the reopening plans for one of Broadway’s newest restaurants. Co-owner Gregg Holcomb says Olmstead’s huge square footage is now an asset. The old bones of the Broadway Grill support a relatively giant restaurant — a liability from the rent end of things — but a setting Holcomb believes will work even at 50% capacity.
“We’re excited about getting bodies back at Olmstead. For us, getting to 50% capacity is easier because it’s such a large space.”
Getting to the next phase will also help the restaurant start to grow its customers, Holcomb said, after its late 2019 debut. Holcomb’s other Broadway business Witness with an established track record has done much better during the takeout and delivery only phase while Olmstead has struggled. With hope of the return of sit down customers, Holcomb and his first time owner counterparts Jesse Elliott, and Lisa Tomlinson are ready to get Olmstead back into motion.
“If I had to put a silver lining on it, when you open a new restaurant, you make your best shot,” Holcomb said. “This kind of gave us a breath to see what was working.”
Of course, with the capacity limits, Phase 2 will bring new challenges for what has been going smoothly at Witness. The cocktail and fried chicken bar might not kick back into full motion until the COVID-19 restrictions are more completely lifted, Holcomb said.
GOD FORBID, A SUMMER WITHOUT BARS
Capacity issues might keep more of the Hill’s booze-first venues shuttered through summer. In our report on the liquor board allowing the sale of mixed drinks for to go and takeout, Revolver bar owner Gary Reynolds said cutting down the number of customers in a venue like his that is almost completely dependent on booze sales just won’t pencil out. “There are times when it is slow, sure,” Reynolds said. “You make your money when you have your busy nights.”
“The thing about it is, nobody wants to go to an empty bar,” he added. “You want to go to a bar where there’s like 10 people?”
Seattle nightlife veteran and Capitol Hill restaurant and bar owner Linda Derschang agrees with Reynolds and said she thinks the customer cap will keep many bars from reopening. “I just don’t see how it will wok,” she told CHS when the capacity limits were being discussed a few weeks before the announcement. Her bet: 50% might take on even greater meaning this summer — half of the Hill’s bar-only venues might not reopen.
Still, it was too early to say whether Derschang’s Linda’s would expand beyond its current weekend-only takeout service. The food and drink veteran was more sanguine about the prospects for her larger and more food focused Oddfellows cafe.
Kate Opatz, co-owner of E Olive Way’s Montana also said the capacity issues might mean the bar stays shuttered even as her other bar business, natural wine bar La Dive is prepared to ramp up in the next phase. The difference? The E Pike bar has pivoted to a new model as a neighborhood bottle shop with online sales.
While industry vets Holcomb and Derschang seem set to rally around their larger assets, another neighborhood chef owner tells CHS he is paring down for Phase 2. Shota Nakajima transformed his newly opened E Pike bar Taku into a whirl of takeout and delivery activity through much of the lockdown but has temporarily closed the joint for a retooling in preparation for a stepped-up effort once the Phase 2 loosening is in place. He said he is centering his effort on Taku in the heart of Pike/Pine while keeping his high-end Adana darkened at 15th and Pine.
Whether a small strip of a bar or a large capacity venue, one secret of survival in the new Capitol Hill food and drink economy might end up being more than table layouts or menus. Sundstrom at Lark said there is the likelihood that customers will be afraid to dine out and seek out safe, trustworthy experiences.
“You can flip the switch but it doesn’t mean people are ready to go out in the old ways,” Sundstrom said. Finding a format that meets requirements and truly keeps customers and employees safe — and feeling safe — is key.
Employees will be at the center of that feeling of safety. The state guidelines include requirements for worker education “in the language they understand best about coronavirus and how to prevent transmission” as well as face masks and protective gear “such as gloves, goggles, face shields and face masks as appropriate or required to employees for the activity being performed.”
On 19th Ave E, few have seen more in Capitol Hill food and drink than Eric Banh. The Monsoon founder has an even-keel perspective on reopening. He’s not looking to reinvent Monsoon, really, or make many changes beyond directions he and sister Sophie Banh had already set out on — never turn down business, embrace things like delivery and takeout, stay nimble. And, Eric adds, be ready to “work harder to lose less money.”
“I’m excited to open again,” Eric Banh said. “But I’m not excited. Rent you still pay full. Utilities you still pay full.”
Still, a Monsoon and Ba Bar at half capacity is the start of recovery. Banh argues that, if you are going to open your doors for service and fire up your stoves, every little bit of new business you can add will help. Banh also argues that there is more to it than revenue and profit.
“I’m headed to work right now. That is good even if you don’t make money. Life, you need to socialize. Have a cup of coffee,” Banh said. “I may die tomorrow, right?”
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