Diners who have waited patiently to go back to their favorite places are facing a new set of rules, changing hours and shifting menus as restaurants reopen.
The second phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s gradual rollback of the pandemic shutdown poses a quandary for restaurants, which can only open at half capacity. Reopening a dining room may bring in more business but it has to be enough to cover costs.
Only five or fewer people can sit at each table, and tables have to be spaced apart so each person is sitting 6 feet away from other diners. Menus must be single use. Employees must wear masks, and guests are to wear them when not seated at their table.
Most independently owned food businesses in Vancouver have small dining rooms, and can only seat a few diners at 50 percent capacity. In addition, many owners said they are finding that employees, who are receiving unemployment benefits that are higher than their normal take home pay, aren’t interested in returning to work.
Not to mention that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic. Bonnie Brasure closed her cafe, Bleu Door Bakery, before the governor shut down all restaurants and bars for dine-in service in March. She’s still not convinced that opening an indoor dining space is safe. Brasure has reopened Bleu Door’s express window, but doesn’t expect to open her cafe to diners anytime soon.
“Based on what we hear in other states,” she said, “is it worth it?”
Other restaurant owners described the challenge of rapidly and repeatedly reinventing their businesses.
Keri Buhman, owner of C’est La Vie, expanded the cafe’s grocery offerings during the shutdown.
“It was like starting a business over again,” Buhman said. “Instead of a cafe with a small market, we’re a market with a small cafe.”
When restaurants were shut down, Buhman transformed her dining space in Hazel Dell into a market with baked goods, heat-and-eat meals, produce, cheeses and pantry items. The market kept the business afloat. Buhman’s plan for Phase 2 is to use the larger former dining space for the market, and fill the smaller former market space with four tables for indoor dining. Reopening the space for diners requires hiring back staff, figuring out how to work in shifts in the small kitchen, and redesigning her point-of-service system for the newly reopened cafe.
Limited kitchen space combined with pandemic disruptions in the food supply chain have led owners to reconsider and often shorten their menus.
Miguel Sosa, chef and owner of Elements Restaurant in downtown Vancouver, wrote five different menus before finalizing one for the restaurant’s reopening.
“I’m having fun because of the fact that we have to reprint menus every day goes back to what Elements is,” Sosa said “We need to change the menu every day based on what we have.”
Sosa, who wasn’t able to secure any small-business loans, had to reopen for his restaurant to survive. “I’m very fortunate that we build good relationships with our guests. We have a lot of regular customers. I couldn’t help it, I went to every table and greeted them when we reopened. It made me tear up,” he said.
Downtown offices sit empty as employees work from home. This has affected restaurants that rely on a steady lunch business. Pre-pandemic, officer workers packed The Mighty Bowl on weekdays. The popular plant-based focused cafe recently reopened for lunch with a shorter menu featuring its signature beans-and-rice Mighty Bowl along with a handful of smoothies. The cafe also offers outdoor seating.
The enthusiasm for the reopening on social media didn’t translate to a lot of actual business the first week, owner Steve Valenta said. He has turned his attention to creating a new dinner concept featuring The Mighty Bowl’s own plant based burgers and a selection of craft beer. He’s currently experimenting with various plant-based burger patties along with cheese and sauces.
Even so, he’s still not sure when he’ll open the dining room. He has concerns about keeping everyone safe and he isn’t convinced that a half-capacity dining room would create enough revenue to be viable.
I planned to go to The Mighty Bowl for a salad to experience dining in this new era, but that’s not how it worked out.
First, I picked up a chai at Compass Coffee, where I found about 10 people sitting and drinking coffee at four tables. The table with milk, simple syrup and napkins was gone, as were the rows of 20-something creatives tapping on their laptops. The whoosh of the espresso machine occasionally broke the silence, but sipping chai from a paper cup in an empty, quiet space wasn’t the experience that I expected.
I wandered over to The Mighty Bowl. Unfortunately, it was Monday and the restaurant was closed. I wanted something fresh and healthy, so I decided to see if Ingrid’s Good Street Food was open. Fortunately, it was. The space, like Compass, was missing tables. The gaps were filled with a carpet, a table and a vintage 1970s lamp from owner Ingrid Kenny’s home, which made it feel like lunching at a cool friend’s house. Kenny said that most people sit outside, but on my visit it was pouring rain and outside dining wasn’t an option.
Ingrid’s menu has changed slightly. Collard-green wraps are off the menu because the restaurant didn’t have enough demand to use up the greens before they went bad. New to the menu are a BBQ Chicken Bowl and a Cheap Eats section.
I ordered the Greek salad to eat in the restaurant and a BBQ Chicken Bowl to go. While waiting for my order, I chatted with Kenny. She and her husband, John, are the only employees so she hasn’t had to deal with some of the staffing issues that other places have experienced. She opened her cafe as soon as possible because she felt that she could keep the small space clean and safe for customers.
One more woman came into the cafe, a regular who was warmly greeted by Kenny. The other customer sat at a table against the opposite wall. There was plenty of space.
Kenny turned on the speakers and ’80s songs by Psychedelic Furs and the Cult filled the room. A fresh salad, Kenny’s sunny positivity, and a warm place to watch the rain were exactly what I needed.
Based on my little experiment, I recommend calling a place before you head out to make sure it’s open, find out what’s on the menu, ask if they take reservations or be ready to do some wandering around to find a place that is open and serving something you feel like eating.
We’re social creatures. A large part of the pleasure of dining out is being among other people — eavesdropping, chatting with your server, enjoying the buzz of energy that comes with a room filled with people having a good time. Empty spaces can make a person feel a bit like those desolate souls in Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks.” Nonetheless, a chance encounter with someone as sunny and positive as Kenny can be a reminder of why we all missed dining out.