This story appears in the July-August combo issue of Seattle magazine and Seattle Business magazine. Subscription information is here.
If anyone knows about reinvention, it’s Addo chef/owner Eric Rivera. Since opening the popular Seattle restaurant three years ago, he’s hosted constantly evolving dinners, events, multicourse meals, trivia games and every kind of food party he can come up with. Most nights, reservation-only Addo had two to five menus and concepts going on at the same time. His food can range from a $4 burrito to a $400 tasting menu.
“I don’t see the value of just being one thing,” Rivera says. “I’m designing different menus all the time. Sometimes days ahead and sometimes just hours ahead. It’s improvisational jazz.”
That desire to hit more than one note should serve him well as restaurant owners look to the fall and winter with uncertainty, apprehension and resolve. For Seattle restaurateurs, surviving 2020 means creativity and constant reinvention. The coming months could bring a resurgence of masked restaurant patrons or a bleak second wave and subsequent shutdowns. Most restaurant owners say they must remain positive despite the unknowns because their livelihoods are at stake.
“I am optimistic because I have to be,” says Bob Donegan, president of Ivar’s. “I have 1,000 people depending upon me doing my job. We have to figure out a way.”
Here are the stories of six Seattle restaurateurs who continue to claw forward and reinvent their product in a time unlike anything we’ve experienced before.
Salare, Junebaby, Lucinda Grain Bar
The kitchen lights are on at Edouardo Jordan’s Ravenna restaurants, but tables remain empty. Jordan has no idea when diners will return.
Until restaurants can operate at full capacity, it doesn’t make financial sense for his small neighborhood spots to open back up for in-person dining. And for Jordan, the health risks are even more troubling than the financial implications. He doesn’t want to chance spreading Covid-19 between his staff or customers. He worries about whether the local restaurant industry can survive the next year.
“It doesn’t look very good for a lot of us,” Jordan says.
Jordan had already been planning on closing Salare and Junebaby for a week for his annual spring refresh, when staff takes vacation and he deep cleans the restaurants. He thought he’d use the week to figure out when they’d be able to reopen. It quickly became apparent that the closures would be long term.
Like many restaurants across town, Jordan pivoted to takeout. At Salare, he launched the community charity kitchen. He partnered with Chef Edward Lee in Kentucky, who launched the Restaurant Workers Relief Program with restaurateurs across the country to cook meals for laid-off restaurant staff. Using website donations, Jordan and about 10 of his employees created simple daily meals for pick up. Eventually, Jordan ended his participation in the program and switched to cooking meals for various local charities, such as Solid Ground, Byrd Barr Place, Northwest Harvest, FareStart and World Kitchen. Whether Jordan can keep the program going depends on funding.
“Our donations are dwindling,” Jordan says. “We need to be smart about keeping the lights on. We are a for-profit business, so we have to figure out how to make it happen now. We can’t do freebies.”
While the charity meals keep some of Jordan’s staff employed, he’s bringing in more revenue from gourmet takeout. Every week at Junebaby, he creates a three- to four-course takeout menu. The food has strong Southern influences but is inspired by the cuisine at all three of his restaurants. His generously portioned meals sell for $60 to $70 and can usually feed more than one person or last a couple of days.
“Junebaby is the house that is trying to take care of the bills,” Jordan says.
So far, the takeout program has kept Jordan afloat, if not thriving. He has good days and slow days, just like any typical restaurant. But Jordan doesn’t pretend that preparing carryout food makes him or his staff particularly happy. Jordan, a James Beard award-winning chef, opened restaurants to create unique, inventive meals for customers dining face to face. Greeting patrons, plating meals and crafting individual courses are what he and his staff love to do.
“Takeout is keeping us going. Is it what we want to do? No,” Jordan says.
The coming fall and winter seasons loom as a huge unknown for Jordan. He can’t see asking patrons to come into a small restaurant where they are breathing shared heater air. When asked if he’s optimistic, he laughs and says he’s realistic.
“I have no clue what will happen this fall and winter,” Jordan says. “It hurts my brain so much because it changes daily. I don’t know if a lot of restaurants will be able to survive Covid-19 unless there are major changes in how we eat out.”
Ivar’s Seafood Restaurants & Chowder
Ivar’s has relied on its restaurants’ outdoor spaces this summer. The deck at Ivar’s Salmon House on Lake Union doubles seating capacity. The lure of a waterfront deck is always high on summer evenings, and even more so this year when patrons worry about indoor virus spread. Ivar’s downtown location hasn’t benefited from cruise passengers or tourists, but local and regional customers made up some of the difference by opting to explore their own backyard.
This winter, however, dark and rainy weather will make al fresco dining unappealing. The questions of whether coronavirus will surge again here, and whether patrons will feel comfortable dining in masks indoors, remain unknown. Donegan knows some of his customers won’t return until there is a vaccine.
Donegan was more prepared than most when Seattle began to shut down. He’d known since January that the virus had the potential to cause major damage in America, and he also knew that Ivar’s could weather catastrophe. The company has seen a roof collapse, a restaurant flood, and a wave slam into the waterfront Mukilteo restaurant during a major storm. “The sad but strange thing about Ivar’s is that we’ve gotten really good at handling crises,” Donegan says.
When the severity of the virus became apparent, Donegan convened 16 members of his leadership team. Immediately, he and three partners abandoned their salaries. Within a week, they furloughed most of their staff and helped them work to obtain unemployment benefits. Though he could execute cost savings measures with speed, Donegan struggled with the human side of the rapid shutdown.
“We were pretty prepared for the nonemotional part of this,” Donegan says. “But telling people that their jobs were on hold…those were very hard conversations. We’ve been to their weddings and bar mitzvahs.”
Donegan recognizes that Ivar’s is luckier than many smaller Seattle restaurants. Many mom and pop restaurants have just a couple of months of cash on hand. He predicts at least 30% of the city’s restaurants won’t reopen.
“We have a bigger balance sheet and 83 years of experience,” Donegan says. “We will come through this.”
Chef/owner Eric Rivera has thrown out lots of creative takeout offerings to keep business going during the pandemic. At this point, he’s being cautious and has no plans to reopen to in-house diners. He worries that one staff member or one customer will call him with positive Covid-19 results. He’d have to shut down the restaurant again immediately for several days, call everyone who’d been there and deep clean the space. He worries that he’d be constantly opening and closing, given the number of asymptomatic patients. If someone could develop a five-minute rapid virus test that Rivera could use on every person who came through the door, then he’d feel comfortable reopening.
“I think restaurants that are thinking about safety are the ones that will still be around,” Rivera says.
While some restaurants have branched no further than a simple to-go menu, Rivera will continue taking Addo to homes in as many ways as he can. He’s developed a charity plan, taking donations on his website to provide meals to both people in need and health care workers. Rivera opened a wholesale store to sell meat, seafood, flour and pantry items from his suppliers to consumers. He’s selling prepared food to go that ranges from a $7 hot pocket to a $150 dinner feeding one to four people.
The most creative pandemic offerings from Addo provide a full-dinner party—and a whole lot of fun—at home. One package for purchase mimicked a luxurious first-class flight, complete with a safety video and airplane window footage on YouTube, champagne, caviar, packaged snacks and a full dinner. A camping package included wild mushroom stew, salmon, trail mix and a s’mores kit. He made a YouTube playlist that took diners on a virtual trip walking through the forest, setting up camp and building a fire.
For those seeking relaxation, Rivera created a spa day home experience. Customers could choose from a cleansing package with juices and light fare, Korean spa food or Russian spa food. He sent home a bath pampering kit and created playlists of soothing spa music.
Rivera also found ways to bring his strategy-based dinner games home. In normal life, he hosts Oregon Trail nights at Addo, with the warning “You may or may not make it. Dysentery is a thing.” During the pandemic, players take home a multicourse meal and then join a Zoom call to face off against each other. They go on a scavenger hunt, compete in a trivia contest, and then find an instrument and perform in a talent competition.
Other Addo strategy games include Candyland, Cook vs. Cook and food eating competitions such as Hot Sauce Challenge. In another game, Mas o Menos, guests start playing online two days before the dinner party, accumulating points in order to win wine, larger portions, champagne, caviar or additional meals from Addo. If they don’t perform well, they still get to enjoy the base Addo meal during the dinner party.
He’s realistic that some of his ideas may be short-lived. He abandoned a food box program where he curated all the items because he discovered that if he sold customers two weeks’ worth of food, they didn’t return to his restaurant for that length of time. Rivera also recognizes that it’s impossible to replicate a multicourse upscale dining experience at home. He recalled one customer who took home an Addo meal with cooking instructions and complained that it just didn’t feel like fine dining. Rivera shrugs, saying there’s just no way to plate a meal and wait on someone right now.
“I think some of it will stick, but I don’t think a lot of it will,” Rivera says. “That’s kind of how this restaurant has always been. I’m cool with killing things that don’t work.”
For now, Rivera is selling a greater volume of food than he was a year ago prior to the pandemic, which he attributes to a larger slate of cheap menu options. Rivera can pay his employees and his rent, and that’s all he cares about right now.
“I’m not driving a Ferrari to work, but I don’t have investors or anyone else to answer to,” Rivera says.
Duke Moscrip compares the beginning of the pandemic to being hit on the face and lying on the ground for a while before realizing you’d been knocked out.
“It happened so fast you couldn’t react,” says Moscrip, Duke’s CEO and founder.
Moscrip quickly realized that even if he tried to pivot, it wouldn’t necessarily be successful. The company ran a takeout program for just a few days and found it needed locations where customers could easily drive up to pick up food. There was no way that could happen in the Bellevue Square Duke’s, which is located inside a shopping mall. After crunching the numbers, the Duke’s leadership team decided to shut down completely and slashed more than 400 jobs.
While offering takeout from full-service restaurants didn’t pan out, Duke’s did develop a delivery program for select frozen items during the shutdown. The restaurant partnered with Sound Sustainable Farms to deliver a handful of Duke’s most popular items, including Duke’s spice blend; frozen salmon, burgers, and clam chowder; and vacuum-sealed sourdough bread. Moscrip says sales have been excellent for the delivery service, and he expects them to get even better.
In June, all six Duke’s restaurants finally reopened, though in July, Public Health—Seattle & King County shut down the company’s Alki Beach location after seven employees tested positive for coronavirus.
All the locations except Bellevue Square have outdoor seating, which has been critical for sales. Even so, Moscrip isn’t confident that enough people will be ready to eat out this year to push restaurants to profitability. “We aren’t sure we can make money,” Moscrip says.
As of July, Duke’s best performing locations—neighborhood spots with outdoor seating—were down in sales around 15 percent. The restaurants at Bellevue Square and Southcenter Mall were only seeing half the normal volume. Even the South Lake Union Duke’s, which boasts what Moscrip calls “probably the best deck in the city,” is only doing 40 percent of normal sales because Amazon workers are at home.
“It’s not sustainable,” Moscrip says. “Either people have to start coming in or we have to modify our plan.”
Moscrip worries about fall and winter, when diners will no longer eat outside. Only his South Lake Union restaurant’s deck has a roof and heaters to transition to cold weather months. Even a normal winter in Seattle brings slower sales as people hunker down at home, and this year could mean new lows.
“Winter is going to be a challenge,” Moscrip says. “We need to get through it. We need to get to spring.”
Moscrip believes Duke’s will survive. The company weathered the downturn in 2008. It has multiple locations with decks and has always been fiscally conservative. He knows that many of his fellow restaurateurs have no reserves. But even the larger players, such as Duke’s, would be crippled if a second virus wave completely closes the town again, Moscrip says.
“If [Gov. Jay] Inslee shuts everything down again, it would be the death knell for restaurants,” Moscrip says. “He can’t do that.”
E3 Restaurant Group
Metropolitan Grill, Elliott’s Oyster House,
Wing Dome, Heartwood Provisions, Quincy’s Burgers
With his two largest restaurants in downtown Seattle, E3 Restaurant Group CEO Jim Rowe knows firsthand how quiet the neighborhood is. Offices are empty, the entire cruise season is canceled and tourists aren’t flying here during what’s typically peak season.
But Rowe also knows that his company isn’t going anywhere. He’s choosing to look on the bright side, highlighting some of E3’s assets during a pandemic. Metropolitan Grill and Elliott’s both boast big, roomy dining rooms, and Elliott’s has a large deck overlooking the water. If patrons want to dine out while maintaining social distance, his restaurants are a good place to do it. Even when Elliott’s and the Met Grill are limited to half capacity, a significant volume of guests can still come through the doors.
“I have no doubt we will survive this,” Rowe says. “We are strong financially and we have a strong customer base.”
E3 has pivoted its business to increase cash flow during the pandemic. The company began selling ready-to-eat meals with curbside pick up in front of its restaurants, and Rowe doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. He says many loyal Met Grill clients continue to regularly order dinners.
A third-party delivery system already existed at Wing Dome, and sales continue to be strong there. E3 was also already developing a catering service before the pandemic hit, and Rowe plans to continue to build on that. Once the state allows larger groups, he’s confident private dining at the Met will see high demand.
For Rowe, fall and winter remain a big question mark. He’s hoping the mask mandate helps slow the virus spread and thinks the state’s caution in moving forward will make it less likely to retreat to complete shutdown. If the virus spikes once more this fall or winter, E3 will again fall back on catering, delivery and the takeout business.
“I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it,” Rowe says. “We are prepared to respond to it if we need to.”
Ascend Hospitality Group
Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi,
Lincoln South Food Hall, Famous Dave’s BBQ, Stanford’s
If the pandemic is a big lemon, Ascend president Elaina Herber has been trying everything she can to make lemonade.
That’s the analogy she uses to describe the flurry of actions she took after the coronavirus took hold. During the stay-at-home order, Herber brought on new dining options at her food hall and strategized alternative ways to make money at her other restaurants. Though Ascend’s restaurants are now open for physical dining at partial capacity, she plans to continue new takeout programs to be prepared for this fall and winter when, she predicts, Covid-19 will make a resurgence. Herber says diversifying revenue streams is critical for the restaurant industry’s survival, both here and across the country.
“There are so many things in the restaurant industry you want to do that you don’t have time for,” Herber says. “This was a shutdown for us, but not really a shutdown. We played offense rather than defense.”
At Lincoln South Food Hall in downtown Bellevue, customers had been asking for more healthy and ethnic options. Herber used the downtime to bring in healthy grain bowl restaurant, Wonderbowl, a new raw fish poke place and an açai bar.
Ascend acquired neighborhood restaurant and bar chain Stanford’s last October along with Portland Seafood Co. Ascend permanently closed the latter last month due to “unforeseen business downturn” related to the pandemic but launched a Stanford’s takeout and delivery service. “It’s definitely becoming a revenue stream we can count on,” Herber says.
Famous Dave’s locations stayed open throughout the shutdown, with nine employees at each site to do takeout. After closing altogether for just three weeks, Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi began offering meal kits that people could cook at home and ready-to-go hot food. It soon shelved the kits, however, since only the hot meals were selling.
“No one wanted to cook their own food,” Herber says.
Herber worries most about her employees. The company initially laid off 655 staff members, and as of July had brought back about 30 percent. She schedules calls every other week with each restaurant’s hourly workforce team. Herber wants to reduce their anxieties and reassure them that Ascend will stay in business.
"These are people who are like my family,” Herber says. “I don’t want to lose those connections.”