Hand in hand with the arrival of cold weather, local restaurant owners' biggest fear is already coming true.
In just the last week, two Spokane eateries (Geno's pub in the Logan neighborhood and Garageland downtown) announced permanent closures, citing among the reasons nearly eight months of depressed sales since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the hospitality industry.
Unfortunately, as the year comes to a close, these two spots likely won't be the only forever goodbyes in the local dining scene. The Washington Hospitality Association is predicting, in the worst case, that up to one-third of the state's restaurants could permanently close by year's end.
"No one really knows how many restaurants are going to close," says Washington Hospitality Association President Anthony Anton. "But what the association can do is be honest with the public about what we've budgeted... We're anticipating 35 percent of our [member] businesses to go out of business this year," mostly in the full-service, independently owned categories.
With patio dining — crucial for restaurants limited to 50 percent capacity since mid-May — disappearing alongside fall's freeze, and coronavirus cases across the U.S. spiking again, restaurant owners are feeling squeezed.
Enter what could be a vital lifeline: the Spokane Hospitality Coalition. The collective of locally owned restaurants hope by speaking up together and sharing creative ideas to help sustain business over the winter that more closures can be prevented.
"We're working with the city and the state to find different things to get us through the wintertime," chef and restaurateur Chad White says to a room full of mask-clad restaurant owners at a recent coalition meeting at Brick West Brewing.
"We're collaborating to maintain standards, and marketing to customers that businesses are safe for guests and employees, and we keep on driving the three W's — wear a mask, watch your distance, wash your hands. If we can keep doing that as business owners, maybe our health department and governor will help us out," White continues.
The fee-free, voluntary membership group has more than 100 local eateries on its roster, whose owners signed a pledge to follow a set of sanitation and safety guidelines that goes beyond state- and county-mandated regulations. A complete list of coalition members and standards are listed on its website, save509.com.
White, along with David's Pizza owner Mark Starr and multi-location restaurant owner Matt Goodwin, co-founded the coalition, and scheduled the meeting with Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward to share ideas and hear concerns from fellow restaurant and bar owners.
"I love that this is a grassroots coalition to come up with proactive ways, and lobby the governor and state health department for ways to reopen," Woodward tells the room. "Industries that have come up with their own best practices and protocols got to reopen, and reopen even wider, so that is what I am here to encourage today."
Ideally, restaurants want to see their seating capacity expanded from 50 to 75 percent even as Spokane County remains in Phase 2 of the state's economic reopening plan. Or additional extensions to alcohol service hours (recently changed from a 10 pm to an 11 pm cutoff) and individual party size (also expanded early this month from five to six people).
As the meeting continues, Spokane Parks and Recreation Director Garrett Jones takes the floor to outline how some of his department's recent strategies to keep open recreation facilities like golf courses and the Ice Ribbon could be tweaked to apply to restaurants.
Jones' ideas include creating incentives for people to safely return to downtown to shop, recreate and dine by offering promotions like free parking vouchers and discounts at restaurants that could potentially be back funded with some of Spokane County's remaining $40 million in federal CARES Act funding so restaurants don't lose money while customers get a discount. (On Monday, county commissioners unanimously voted to allocate up to $10.8 million for the new Spokane County Hospitality Relief Grant, managed by Greater Spokane Inc. (GSI), to provide financial support to local businesses in lodging, arts, entertainment, food services and recreation.)
"Just send your ideas to us, no matter how crazy," White says after Jones finishes. "Just send us your ideas and we'll format them and talk about what we can bring to Mayor Nadine and [Health Officer] Bob Lutz. Having this big group of people here, and business owners that are creative and tenacious, let's just keep moving toward that."
The afternoon before the coalition's meeting with the mayor, White and Starr discuss deeper nuances of the challenges restaurants are facing, and how these factors are pushing the industry's already razor-thin margins toward an even steeper precipice.
"Conservatively, this is going to last through spring," Starr says. "One of the first things people have to know is that even at 50 percent capacity, very few places are achieving that [maximum]. Not a lot of people are going out right now. They're staying home and waiting for the day they can go out to their favorite places again."
"Think again," he continues, "because those places might not be there when this is over."
Starr references the national industry statistic that most restaurants operate on a 4 to 6 percent margin, with most of the money coming in going to cover the increasingly high cost of goods, labor and rent. So for every $100 table check, a restaurant is only making $4 to $6 after its bills are paid.
Starr says many places are now operating at a net loss.
"At a place like David's, we have over 5,000 square feet and can [normally] seat over 200 people," he says. "And god bless the public — they say 'You're still doing takeout, you must still be doing good,' but if I was doing that I could get away with what Chad is doing at High Tide," which has a counter-service model.
The pandemic has also hit downtown restaurants harder than others.
"Conversely, neighborhood businesses on the lower South Hill, Northside and Valley, they've actually seen an uptick," Starr says. "A lot of people, now that their offices are their homes, are they going to hop in their car and drive downtown to grab a beer and quick bite?"
The answer is not likely.
The most pressing question, though, is how can restaurants of any size and location make it through the winter if outdoor patio seating is not an option. Heated tents and transparent geodesic domes may work for some, but such options are also highly cost-prohibitive for businesses already inching toward the red.
"I don't know how practical that is for our area," Starr says. "I have a big huge circus tent I could put on our deck, but I just don't know that I could make that work or that the public would respond well to that."
The easiest answer to this problem, he says, may simply be maxing out what indoor seating places do have as much as possible — "putting butts in seats," one of the coalition's unofficial taglines — throughout the cold season, while the world awaits the pandemic's end.
"The reason why we even discussed creating the Spokane Hospitality Coalition is that business owners have really big challenges ahead," White says. "So how do we turn a negative situation we have little control over, where we're also being told how to operate our business, into a positive one? How do we come together and bring attention to the situation to work together to bring business through our doors?" ♦
Inlander staff writer Samantha Wohlfeil contributed reporting.