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Phase 3 may not be cure-all for Clark County restaurants

Eateries ready for more dine-in customers, but financial crunch likely to worsen

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
Published:
6 Photos
Steve Hilken, restaurant co-owner, makes drinks at Main Event's east location. During Phase 2 of reopening, restaurants must keep a 6-foot distance between tables. Main Event has eliminated bar seating and added one small table next to the bar.
Steve Hilken, restaurant co-owner, makes drinks at Main Event's east location. During Phase 2 of reopening, restaurants must keep a 6-foot distance between tables. Main Event has eliminated bar seating and added one small table next to the bar. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

For Clark County restaurants, including Main Event, getting to Phase 3 is mainly a step to get things back to normal.

“I don’t think it will make a big difference,” said Main Event co-owner Jason Fish.

Under Phase 3, which was delayed by at least two weeks on Thursday by Gov. Jay Inslee, many restaurants will see slightly more revenue: With an additional 25 percent seating capacity, they will be limited first by the “6-foot rule” between the tables. But having bar tops open to 25 percent capacity and party sizes up to 10 is a good gain for restaurant’s revenue.

Meanwhile, Clark Country restaurant owners are left wondering, with COVID-19 rates on the rise, when Phase 3 will come.

At Main Event’s east location, at 3200 S.E. 164th Ave., having a 7,500-square-foot space will bring the most benefit from the increased party size under Phase 3, Fish said. About twice a day, families of six or more enter the doors and have to be split up. It makes for an uncomfortable conversation, he said.

But until the 6-foot rule is gone, capacity increases for most, if not all, restaurants will be unable to allow more capacity.

“It won’t gain us a whole bunch of extra seats,” Fish said. “If you look at the real estate of the seats, we need volume growth. Safe volume growth.”

Jacque Coe, spokesperson for the Washington State Hospitality Association, said that a restaurant’s floor space and occupancy are major factors in keeping a restaurant profitable and open, but outdoor seating and parklets are helping with that. But advancing phases is an opportunity to stay alive longer.

“The difference between Phase 2 and Phase 3 is the opportunity to return more employees to work and recovery financially,” said Coe.

The main thing that people can do to help the restaurant besides buying food is to wear a mask, Fish said. And for restaurants, the best thing they can do is ensure that they’re abiding by the rules. Fish said he drives by downtown Vancouver restaurants and sees many seats within 6 feet of each other.

“When I drive by places, what’s frustrating to me is when they’re not 6 feet apart,” he said. “We all want the same thing. We’re all on the same team. We’re all in the food industry.”

Fish said he’s surprised to see that more restaurants in Clark County haven’t permanently closed. With the PPP loan program ending Aug. 8, restaurants might emerge on the other end with too much debt or a broken business model and then decide to close, he said. Fish estimated roughly 40 percent of noncorporate restaurants could close in the near future as a result of the pandemic’s effects.

“We’ll see a trend for smaller restaurants,” he said. “We’ll see restaurants scaling down.”

Demand rising

New hope for restaurants gaining back customers comes in a weekly Washington State University study, which found that more people are willing to dine in than in the week prior.

The study interviewed 811 American consumers between June 15 and 20, and about 83 percent of the respondents said that they have dined at a restaurant since reopening. It was a 29.21 percent increase compared to the number of people who dined in at a sit-down restaurant in an earlier version of the study the week before.

Fish, who is also a co-owner of 3 Sheets at the Harbor in Portland, said the main financial concern for restaurants is the delay or the reversal of advancing on phases. Fish said he suspects Oregon Gov. Kate Brown might reverse Multnomah County’s phase back to takeout and delivery only.

As restaurants wade deeper into the pandemic restrictions, they will be digging into cash reserves, gaining debt, raising food prices, reducing the quantity or portion sizes or reducing service quality, Fish said.

“How long am I going to be able to pay for everything?” He said. “I think you’ll see people being more creative but figuring out lower-cost items and push to-go food. The cost of everything is going to go up. You’re going to see portions change.”

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