Wednesday, January 20, 2021
Jan. 20, 2021

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A wild year for restaurants in Clark County

Businesses found new ways to stay afloat as virus changed models, habits

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Vancouver's Heathen Brewing kept suds flowing during the pandemic with a beer truck.
Vancouver's Heathen Brewing kept suds flowing during the pandemic with a beer truck. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Writing about food felt heavy in 2020. After the pandemic hit and precautions shut down restaurants, the nature of my beat shifted overnight. I went from writing stories about fun things like the best doughnuts in Vancouver to covering an unfolding catastrophe for restaurants.

I spent a lot of time searching for verbs other than “pivot” to describe the industry’s effort to survive as Gov. Jay Inslee issued and modified orders to combat COVID-19’s cruel spread.

Despite the difficulty of changing their business models every month or so, local restaurateurs grew some interesting things in this fetid soil.

For a while, toilet paper, flour, yeast, pasta, dry beans and other things we took for granted in the before-times disappeared from grocery store shelves. The owners of C’est La Vie, La Bottega and Rally Pizza realized they had access to these items through their supply chains and could sell them to their customers. In the process, restaurants transformed their closed dining rooms into boutique grocery stores, filling tables formerly occupied by diners with imported dried pastas, cans of white anchovies, freshly baked loaves of bread, grab-and-go meals, as well as hand sanitizer and TP. The Diner even gave a free roll of TP to anyone ordering takeout.

Locals also rediscovered Clark County farms, including Botany Bay in Brush Prairie, as an alternative to their neighborhood megamart. Farmers’ phones rang off the hook as customers sought new ways to get fresh beef, chicken and pork.

Farmers who grow produce for restaurants shifted to direct sales to individual buyers as their fields filled with greens that would normally be bought by chefs. Red Truck Farm owner Amber Baker sold weekly farm boxes filled with red peppers, pea shoots, salad mix, radishes and Lacinato kale.

Regulators threw businesses a lifeline in June by permitting sale of cocktails and liquor to-go. I packed sealed containers of mezcal margarita from Little Conejo, cans of cocktails from Amaro’s Table and a stellar Old Fashioned kit from The Smokin’ Oak into my trunk along with my food orders. Breweries added beer delivery as the Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board loosened rules. Chasing Heathen Brewing‘s beer truck, fashioned after an old-school ice cream truck, as it played tunes and sold beer to surprised residents of Battle Ground was the most fun I had at work this year.

The canning craze spurred by to-go cocktails spread to coffee roasters. Relevant and Kafiex added cans of cold brew coffee to their new online ordering systems. Jamie Erdman of Thatchers Coffee sold to-go bottles of her bestselling honey vanilla latte, chai and Earl Grey tea lattes.

Caterers shifted from feeding people at large gatherings to creating take-and-bake meals to ease the burden on home cooks. Chef Mark Lopez of Gather and Feast Farm/Crave Catering created a new website offering delicious meals and pantry staples like chimichurri, garlic salt and salsa that could be picked up at his farm in La Center or at Bleu Door Bakery in Vancouver. He also added his products to Flat Tack Farm‘s new website and sold his produce, salts and sauces at Flat Tack’s table at the Vancouver Farmers Market.

Pandemic restrictions permitted farmers markets to continue operating as essential open-air grocery stores. The Vancouver Farmers Market added a website so customers could order for curbside pickup. At the same time, Second Mile Marketplace set up a website and delivery service filled with local produce, meat and such artisan goods as soaps, candles and sachets of lavender.

The wild and crazy dream of 100 percent plant-based businesses in Vancouver became a reality as two owners, who had contemplated this business model for a while, decided 2020 was the year to try something unusual. Steve Valenta opened Moo Burgers & Beer on weekend nights in his existing business, Mighty Bowl, with a menu filled with lusciously topped Impossible burgers and shoestring fries. Bleu Door Bakery owner Bonnie Brasure added plant-based take-and-bake meals like vegan meatloaf, spaghetti Bolognese and stacked enchiladas with her decadent vegan desserts like pear upside down cake, apple galettes and chocolate cake.

Despite all the hardship, restaurants helped those in need.

Joey Chmiko of Nonavo Pizza fed out-of-work food-service employees, out-of-school kids and anyone else who needed a free meal. Chmiko posted inspirational videos featuring his New Jersey beat-poet style on his Instagram feed to keep everyone’s spirits up.

Beaches owner Mark Matthias continued his annual tradition of feeding more than 1,000 people Thanksgiving dinner. Feed the Fearless and similar nonprofits sprung up to feed front-line health care workers while giving new business to restaurants idled by restrictions.

During all this, a growing group of restaurateurs, government representatives and helpers talked weekly as part of the Restaurant Roundtable to work together to keep businesses afloat while keeping the public safe. The Vancouver group successfully influenced the governor to reconsider a rule that only groups of five people from the same household could dine indoors together given that it was impossible to tell who shared a household.

That victory came before pandemic restrictions shut down indoor dining completely again in November. The group then lobbied for more flexible rules for winter-proof outdoor seating areas.

The year ends with coverings and striped awnings popping up all over the county to create outdoor spaces for people to eat and drink in parties of five or fewer. The City of Vancouver recently launched a “street eats” app to help people find these new outdoor dining spaces.

Trying to guess what’s next in 2021 feels like reading tarot cards that fell into a hot bath. Hopefully, good things will happen: The vaccine will work, more aid will flow to small businesses, restaurants will be able to reopen and people will stop dying from COVID-19. I feel fortunate to have covered food and drink in Clark County during such a trying time, but I hope one day to return to what I do best — sipping cocktails while eavesdropping on the people seated next to me and hunting for the perfect taco.

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