It was a Valentine’s Day gift for restaurants: Instead of the original start date of Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced last week that restaurants in five of Washington’s eight regions would be able to move to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan and resume limited indoor dining on Sunday in order to capture the holiday crowd.
The trouble was, Thursday also marked the arrival of a weekend snowstorm.
An initial round on Thursday night and a heavier blitz on Saturday blanketed much of Western Washington and Northwest Oregon in snow, slush and ice. As a result, the first day of Phase 2 was a decidedly mixed bag for restaurants, with some having to forgo all or part of the weekend.
Restaurants weigh options
Little Conejo owner Mychal Dynes said he opted to keep his downtown Vancouver restaurant closed Saturday and Sunday and focus on preparing to reopen for indoor dining Tuesday.
“It seems like one thing after another, but we still feel really lucky that we even have these decisions to make,” he said.
A staffer at Wildfin American Grill at The Waterfront Vancouver said the restaurant had been closed since Thursday evening. Across the street at Stack 571, the restaurant’s voicemail indicated that it had been closed on Sunday and would remain closed until Wednesday. Shan Wickham, general manager at Rally Pizza in central Vancouver, said the restaurant was closed all weekend but planned to extend its Valentine’s Day specials through Thursday.
But the handful of restaurants that did open found that there were still customers willing to brave the elements.
“We were full all day (Sunday), because we’re at limited capacity at 25 percent, but it was nice to be able to close the windows and have a warm restaurant again,” said Mark Matthias, owner of Beaches Restaurant.
Beaches operates two locations, one inside the Portland International Airport and another in Vancouver, and the Vancouver location is next door to a hotel, so Matthias said he makes an effort to stay open through bad weather since there will always be guests nearby.
Beaches is one of several restaurants that have been relying on outdoor tented seating areas to make up for their diminished indoor seating capacity. Phase 1 banned indoor dining unless a restaurant could open up large windows or doors to maintain essentially outdoor-level air freshness, as measured by the amount of ambient carbon dioxide.
In the middle of winter, that meant that indoor seating could get very cold. Little Conejo had a roll-up garage door that allowed for indoor seating, but Dynes said he’d actually been directing guests to the restaurant’s outside patio area last week because of its propane heaters.
With snowstorm conditions outside and the windows finally closed again at Beaches on Sunday, Matthias said the activity all pivoted back inside. Guests preferred the heated indoors, he said, and customer traffic stayed at or below the 25 percent cutoff, avoiding the need to use the tent over the weekend.
Twigs Bistro at the Waterfront opted to stay closed on Saturday following lackluster traffic on Friday, according to assistant manager Brittany Beard, but the restaurant found enthusiastic guests when it opened back up on Sunday.
Customers appeared eager to go out to eat for Valentine’s Day, she said, and there was a lot of interest in the heated indoor seating area.
“We got a lot of phone calls yesterday asking if we were going to have our windows closed,” she said on Monday.
Breweries and wineries welcome Phase 2
Breweries, wineries, bottle shops and coffee shops are also enjoying the return to indoor dining. Since they aren’t generally able to transition to takeout as well as food-serving restaurants, the new indoor dining is welcomed.
“We’re super excited,” said Rick Montgomery, general manager of Brian Carter Cellars at The Waterfront Vancouver.
Montgomery is able to bring back a chef position that was furloughed in November; takeout wasn’t feasible with a small kitchen, he said, although outdoor tasting has been able to generate enough revenue to justify staying open during the winter.
“Takeout requires a huge kitchen and a lot of marketing,” he said. “Wine bars are small. Not like a giant restaurant where you can open up giant doors and get circulation.”
Many wineries and breweries are likely to keep their outdoor dining area open for people who still aren’t comfortable with seating indoors, including Brian Carter Cellars.
However, at 25 percent capacity indoor dining, the tasting room still won’t be profitable — something likely true of almost all dining establishments, according to many local restaurateurs who dealt with 25 percent capacity last year.
Michael Perozzo, founder of local beer marketing firm Zzeppelin, said that for a lot of breweries that had to transition to outside tent dining, bringing people back indoors will also bring back a comfortable atmosphere.
“The tent structure sucked some personality out of some places. It was all kind of real similar,” he said, though he noted that some breweries had impressive and unique tent dining.
“Indoor dining brings more atmosphere and more added space,” he said. “There will be a return of customers that may have not wanted to have a beer outside.”
Kristin Bowerman, manager of Barnard Griffin at The Waterfront Vancouver, said the new regulations will allow her to be able to offer indoor tastings for the first time to the general public. About 10 people can come into the winery.
“We will walk up, pour each tasting separately and explain the experience,” she said. “It will be a more personal experience. You can’t do that with takeout. I was hurting when I couldn’t open the bottles, period. Now, I can at least let someone taste the wine before they buy it.”
The return of indoor dining is widespread, but not universal. Matthias said some restaurants are likely to remain closed until the occupancy limits are increased rather than trying to make things pencil out at 25 percent.
COVID-19 safety concerns also persist; Wickham said Rally Pizza would stick with curbside pickup until all of its staff can get vaccinated.