Less than a week after Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new monthlong set of COVID-19 restrictions — including a ban on all indoor restaurant dining — three Clark County restaurants announced they were shutting their doors.
The Rusty Grape Vineyards tasting room near Battle Ground and Nick’s Bar and Grill in Amboy both announced Tuesday that they would halt operations for the time being, and the Six Shooter bar in downtown Vancouver also went on hiatus this week.
Each of the restaurants’ owners said the closures weren’t permanent, although they acknowledged their businesses are experiencing financial strain, and Nick’s Bar and Grill owner Jeff Strong indicated that the restaurant would have to overcome significant challenges to reopen.
“We’re closed till further notice — we’re not closed forever yet,” Rusty Grape co-owner Jeremy Brown said Wednesday.
Rusty Grape has a European theme with relatively dense seating, Brown said, which made it challenging to comply with the 6-foot-distancing and lower occupancy requirements of Phase 2 of Washington’s Safe Start reopening plan.
It was possible to adjust during the summer months, Brown said, but with the arrival of rainy winter weather, the indoor space was the only area left. The weeks leading up to the new restrictions had been break-even at best.
“It was doable, maybe, before,” he said. “But definitely now, without having indoor seating it’s almost — I mean, it’s impossible.”
Brown said he hopes to reopen Rusty Grape as soon as possible once the new round of restrictions ends, particularly so that his staff can remain on payroll, but he’ll probably have to find a new program or source of funding to make it happen.
Nick’s Bar and Grill owner Jeff Strong described a similar weather conundrum. The restaurant had just started to recover from the financial impact of the initial stay-at-home order in March when the new shutdown order was announced, he said. Without indoor seating, the business didn’t seem viable.
“Would you want to go have a hamburger in 30 degree weather, in the pouring rain?” he said.
Strong said the restaurant was able to obtain a small Paycheck Protection Program loan during the first closure but hasn’t been able to find enough financial assistance this time around. He said he’s grown frustrated with the various restaurant operational mandates imposed throughout the pandemic, which he said seemed to change on an almost weekly basis without a clear explanation.
Strong bought Nick’s in 2013, but he said the restaurant dates back almost 100 years. He said he wants to see it reopen but estimated that it would cost upwards of $50,000 to do so, and short of “some miracle funding falling out of the sky,” the only way it would happen is if someone else buys the business and restarts it.
“I’m worn out,” he said. “I can’t take this yo-yo effect that we’re getting from the state.”
Six Shooter co-owner Annie Maduzia said her bar didn’t immediately reopen when Clark County reached Phase 2, because she and her fellow owners were taking more time to update their interior for social distancing. The bar reopened in September, but a state-mandated 10 p.m. last closing time (later extended to 11 p.m.) made it difficult to operate the traditionally late-night hangout.
“Eighty percent of our sales are between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m.,” she said.
The loss of indoor dining made it impossible to stay open. Six Shooter focuses more on drinks, music and entertainment than food, she said, which makes it financially unrealistic to run the bar solely on take-out service.
The owners saved up some reserves during the fall in case of another lockdown, she said, so the goal now is to ride it out and reopen when conditions are more favorable. But it leaves the bar in a difficult position, and Maduzia said it’s been frustrating for restaurant owners to try to navigate a new shutdown period without the kind of financial support that was available in the spring.
“You want to shut us down (and) you pay for it, you got it,” she said. “(We’re) all about that. But when the financial help isn’t there, at the end of the day people have to survive.”
The first round of lockdown back in March and April led to the permanent closures of a number of Vancouver restaurants including Low Bar, Joe’s Crab Shack and Lapellah.
Takeout service was still permitted during those initial months and remains permitted under the current restrictions, but that’s not always an easy switch. A handful of local restaurants never reopened after the initial shutdown and entered a sort of “hibernation” mode, preferring to wait out the pandemic rather than risk reopening in an unstable business environment.
“They’ve remained closed, and they’re very glad that they have, because this (new round of restriction) would be a death punch for them,” said Eric Sawyer from the Vancouver consulting firm BBSI, who founded a weekly virtual gathering of local restaurateurs called Restaurant Roundtable.
Roots Restaurant and Bar in east Vancouver is one of the hibernators. Co-owner Rich Lieser said he and co-owner Brad Root shut down during the stay-at-home order because take-out service wasn’t a good fit for the upscale restaurant. It didn’t make sense “to put a $45 steak in a box,” he said.
Phase 2 wasn’t an improvement, he said, because the occupancy restrictions and required table spacing would have left the dining room with only a small portion of its original seating, so Roots remained closed through the summer and fall.
“There was just absolutely no way in our space to even remotely break even,” he said.
The restaurant was able to get a PPP loan, part of which could be used for rent and utility costs. The remainder had to be used for payroll, but the owners opted to save that portion for whenever they could finally reopen.
The new round of restrictions solidifies that decision, Lieser said. Reopening would have meant restocking the kitchen, likely at a cost of more than $10,000 — and all the food would have been wasted when the new shutdown hit.
Staying closed has allowed Roots to minimize its losses. There are still rent and utility bills to pay, Lieser said, so the restaurant can’t stay closed forever, but the strategy has bought it a few more months to wait for the right time to restart.
The new restrictions are only scheduled to be in place until December, but it’s very likely that they’re going to end up stretched past that date — or at least that’s the general sentiment among restaurant owners that Sawyer said he’s spoken with this week.
Brown and Strong also both expressed doubts about the certainty of the end date. The first stay-at-home order was extended multiple times, and the rate of new COVID-19 cases has been growing steadily worse both in Clark County and nationally.
That uncertainty is contributing to the unease about the new rules, Sawyer said, and it leaves restaurant owners unsure how to proceed. Even for the restaurants with usable outdoor space, wintertime outdoor dining presents a host of expensive challenges, and it’s hard to know how much to invest in patios and tents if owners don’t know how long they’ll be needed.
“It’s four weeks to start with,” Sawyer said, “but does anybody honestly believe in their right mind that it’s going to be four weeks?”