The past year has been a series of pivots: 12 long, uncertain months of constant adaptation to changing circumstances and evolving guidelines. Few industries have felt those fluctuating demands more keenly than the service and hospitality sector, where business tends to revolve around in-person enjoyment and face-to-face gatherings.
Back in December, it became clear that Inlander Restaurant Week would be better moved from its traditional March slot to August 19-28. And so, once again, yet another pivot was in order. An idea quickly started to jell around a more situation-appropriate alternative that would keep pandemic safety front of mind by giving restaurants and diners more flexibility of choice.
That's how the Great Dine Out came to be. Around 160 restaurants throughout Spokane and Kootenai counties are taking part in the event, which runs from March 12 to 27.
Like Inlander Restaurant Week, the Great Dine Out is about local food. It's about ordering a delicious meal from the independently owned cafe right down the block. It's about sampling the fare at that trendy new joint you've been meaning to check out. It's about trying innovative dishes and enjoying quintessential takes on familiar ones. It can mean dining in, dining out in the open air or getting takeout — whichever makes patrons most comfortable.
More than that, perhaps, the Great Dine Out is about a community rallying to support its own. And it comes at a time when that support is needed more than ever.
Local chef and entrepreneur Adam Hegsted, whose Eat Good Group includes several area restaurants in both Spokane and North Idaho, was forced to lay off all but 30 of his 175 employees because of the downturn. One of the group's oldest and most well-known eateries, the Wandering Table, had difficulty translating to a to-go menu and has since rebranded as the Mediterranean-inspired Baba.
"For our other restaurants, we were managing to break even because of our customer support. What kept us alive was people coming out and getting takeout and delivery," he says. The family-style meal kits and handpicked menu options that his restaurants are offering as part of the Great Dine Out could end up giving them another vital boost.
"We're always excited to get people in the door. Our industry is built to serve. And being able to do that, to make great food for people, is exactly what we love to do."
But restaurants, while the centerpiece of the Great Dine Out, are just one partner in all this. To provide the financial backing to make the event happen, the Inland Northwest's credit unions and banks rallied.
"As employers, the restaurants are critical to so many people," says Marty Dickinson, chief marketing officer at STCU. "At STCU, we have a lot of people who work for us who have partners, spouses, kids who are really dependent on these jobs, and that's true for so many local financial institutions. For this concept, we thought, 'How do we bring an industry that's typically very competitive together for a common challenge' — which was lifting up our regional restaurants? I just started contacting our region's financial institutions and was truly overwhelmed by their generosity, their willingness to immediately step up."
Ultimately, 14 financial institutions added their support: STCU, Washington Trust Bank, Idaho Central Credit Union, BECU, Columbia Bank, P1FCU, Progressions Credit Union, First Interstate Bank, Banner Bank, Canopy Credit Union, Umpqua Bank, Global Credit Union, Wheatland Bank and Horizon Credit Union.
Supermarkets are pitching in as well. Yoke's Fresh Market and Rosauers, two grocery store chains with deep local roots, agreed to distribute tens of thousands of copies of the Great Dine Out's print guide to their shoppers. They recognized that they, too, could play an important role in helping the restaurant industry get through what many hope will be the waning months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The timing of the Great Dine Out probably couldn't be more perfect," says Greater Spokane Inc. CEO Alisha Benson. "We're now in Phase 2, so more of our restaurants have an opportunity to invite guests in as well as continuing their takeout business. There's a certain level of hope and optimism, and I think those things bode well for engagement."
Benson says that the optimism is justified. She points to the anecdotal success of prior COVID-19 relief efforts, like the CARES-funded Back to Business initiative, as an example of how collaboration and awareness-raising can help sustain an economy in difficult times.
Hard data appears to back that up. According to the Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, which tracks the COVID-19 economic fallout and recovery nationwide, Spokane County lost 16.6 percent of its small businesses between January 2020 and February 2021. Compare that to the 30 percent of small businesses lost by the more populous and higher-income King County.
"There's a state line running through our region," says Inlander Co-owner and General Manager Jer McGregor, "but as we come back, we will be one region again. Because that's what we are. We're not Washington and Idaho, we're the Inland Northwest.
"It's a hallmark of the Inland Northwest to find ways to support each other," McGregor adds. "We've gotten better and stronger at it throughout the pandemic, and it's what will continue to set us apart from other communities. It's not just words; it's about taking action. We work together to get things done."
ONE YEAR LATER
This month marks a year since the start of the pandemic and subsequent restrictions. On March 13, 2020, President Trump declared a national emergency. Ten days later, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide shelter-in-place order, and on March 25, Idaho Gov. Brad Little did the same.
The Great Dine Out is a collaborative, community effort, led by the Inlander marketing and business team, supported by 14 regional and local credit unions and banks, and powered by more than 160 local restaurants. Now it's your turn to join the effort. All it takes is a hunger to eat — and to do some good!