One year ago, chef Maria Hines had been running her James Beard Award-winning Seattle restaurant, Tilth, for nearly a decade and a half. Housed in a charming Wallingford Craftsman, Tilth was only the second certified organic restaurant in the country when it debuted. Hines’ cooking in Tilth’s small kitchen supported the work of local farmers, fishers, foragers and more, while both local and national critics applauded as her ethos helped define a new era of high-end Pacific Northwest cuisine. Lucky regulars and those celebrating alike felt – and tasted – the alchemy happening, clinking innumerable glasses as evenings stretched out deliciously within Tilth’s butter-colored walls. Hines opened two more places along the way, but after the sad closure of one and the sale of the other, she spoke frankly of the difficulty of running restaurants as Seattle grew, of the increasing competition and skyrocketing expense. Tilth, however, she would hold on to – as she said in the Before Times of 2019, “It’s my baby.”
On March 15, 2020, Tilth’s dining room went quiet. With Washington state put on lockdown in an attempt to contain COVID-19 cases, indoor restaurant service was halted. Hines – who agrees with the public health measures taken then and since, saying, “100% that had to happen, and in fact, it should’ve been more aggressive” – took the “gut-wrenching” step of laying off all but three of her 17-person-strong team. The four of them who remained scrambled to revamp the Tilth menu for upscale family-style takeout like bake-at-home salmon en papillote with fingerling potatoes, citrus, fennel and herb butter. Hines says her sales dropped immediately and dramatically. She and the skeleton crew worked without the heat on to save money. “We were wearing jackets and beanies,” she remembers. “It was cold in there!”
Hines’ first-ever cookbook, “Peak Nutrition: Smart Fuel for Outdoor Adventure,” came out on April 8 of last year, representing a dream culmination of her outside interests and culinary expertise. But pandemic circumstances left little room for celebration. Under a degree of financial stress that book royalties could not begin to address, Hines used her nonexistent spare time to slog through the paperwork for a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. The money finally came through at the end of April. It felt like a lifeline – at least for a time.
As spring turned to summer, Hines was trying everything she could think of to keep Tilth going. The stress only mounted. She recalls thinking, “‘I cannot lose this restaurant. This is my life!’ … That’s how I’d feel when I woke up, and I’d go to bed and I’d have that same fear – constant fear.” She felt a deep sense of responsibility to those whom Tilth supported – the remaining crew, the local purveyors she bought foodstuff from who were also under dire financial duress. What had felt like a community growing together for more than a decade, celebrating the land and water and seasons, had a new, stark reality. “In essence, you’re helping them keep a roof over their head and a bed …” Hines realized. “And you’re like [expletive] – this is all going to be gone.”
In an ongoing process of “constant problem-solving,” she downscaled the to-go menu: out with the salmon en papillote, in with pandemic comfort food like ribs, enchiladas, mac and cheese. She offered Tilth mercantile items for sale: housemade granola, butter, spiced pecans. Online cooking classes with ingredient kits proved unsustainably time-consuming. Specials on wine only brought in so much. Throughout, Hines also remained committed to the community at large: There was rainbow sherbet for Pride, donations of profits to Black Lives Matter, collections for Mary’s Place. When she felt it made sense, at the beginning of last July, Hines reopened Tilth for in-house dining allowed at 50% capacity, with empty tables bearing “Reserved for Social Distancing” cards. But even with a pretty, summery patio, the little home that was Tilth couldn’t seat enough to keep the bills paid.
With fall setting in, the measures Hines took to try to keep her beloved Tilth afloat got desperate. She stopped paying herself. Then she began dipping into her retirement savings to pay the restaurant’s bills. Sales were down 70% from pre-pandemic days. “There’s not much you can do when you don’t have a big patio and you don’t have a big restaurant, so you can only have so many people in there,” she said then. But with COVID-19 case numbers still rising and rising, the safety of her staff and patrons took precedence over everything else. “Even though it’s destroyed my business, people’s lives are at risk,” she said. With her PPP loan running out in mid-October, Hines calculated that staying open would cost her $1,500 a month.
Hines closed Tilth forever on Oct. 30. “The support for independent restaurants is too little, too late,” she said then. She spoke of wanting to be present “for everyone in their grieving for the restaurant,” and also of what still remained to be done. “No one ever tells you how much there is to do to close down a restaurant,” she noted. “It’s about as much work as opening one.” Then the James Beard Award winner went on unemployment. Her wife, meanwhile, was able to switch the music lessons she taught over to Zoom, but lost half her work as a nanny due to COVID-19. At the grocery story, Hines calculated as she added food to her cart, sometimes thinking, “Yeah, OK, I can’t buy that.” She took time for what she called “a stillness” – for her own grief about the end of Tilth and of an era in her life – but she also spoke of an outpouring of support, saying she felt “wrapped in love.” Compared to the losses of others during the pandemic, she called losing her restaurant “downright trivial.” And she managed to hold out hope, for herself and others like her facing financial devastation.
“These independent small, craft, artisanal businesses that we create – they are a reflection of ourselves,” she observed. “It’s our creativity, it’s our heart and soul that we’re putting into whatever project we’re in, so it’s important that we remind ourselves that all that still lives within us.” She said she still felt trust in the community, in herself and in the universe.
In November, Hines started sending out a newsletter and took to Instagram with a suggested Restaurant of the Week for takeout, seeking to support others in the Seattle industry. She began sharing recipes to improve life at home during the pandemic. She put out a 30-Day Wellness Challenge rife with positivity and humor – an “EMBRACE FAILURE” video showed her stuck sideways in a culvert on cross-country skis, laughing. (“Get knocked down and get back up again!” she wrote.)
To Hines’ immense relief and gratitude, the new year brought new hope with new projects. Eddie Bauer approached her about a partnership. A fellow woman business owner sought consultation on a juice startup. A plan to sell organic energy bars started moving forward. More collaborations with local companies committed to the community and the environment – including Brandi Carlile’s winery, XOBC Cellars – are evolving, and she’s got her own irons in the fire as well. Hines also finally felt she could come out publicly in support of decriminalizing psilocybin – the psychoactive compound found in “magic mushrooms” – and more plant medicine through Decrim Nature Seattle. Where three different pharmaceuticals had failed her, she says, microdosing has provided “a lot of relief for my suffering around anxiety and depression.” She and her wife hope to relocate full time to their Mazama cabin this spring with their pandemic puppy, Hank. He just turned 1 year old.