When David and Wanna Hardin went looking for a spot for their new food cart, WanSook Thai Food, it wasn’t too difficult to find one.
Doomsday Brewing’s outdoor space had an open spot for the Hardins, because another food cart there had closed. So the couple subleased the space and moved in their brand-new cart at 1919 Main St. in Vancouver.
“We’re happy with where we’re at,” David Hardin said. “I think we’re going to grow with the restrictions opening. It’s only going to get better.”
The Hardins are one of about a dozen Vancouver restaurant owners who have opened new food establishments during the pandemic. While the industry is still in turmoil — but showing signs of returning to normalcy with easing restrictions — building a business model now means most likely only having to grow.
And on top of that, finding spaces to lease is easier because landlords with empty spots are more desperate to fill them with functioning restaurants: The soon-to-open The Sedgewick is an example of a restaurant where the landlords struck a special deal to fill it, according to its owners. The Sedgewick, at 801 Washington St., is going into the former Tommy O’s spot in downtown Vancouver.
Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, said he’s seeing that many landlords that evicted restaurants early in the pandemic are now having to lower their rental rates to get new tenants.
“Part of the reason for some of the new restaurants, but not all of them, is that landlords are making screeching deals,” he said.
Many of the new leases were signed before the pandemic, including for the Hazel Dell location of Amaro’s Table.
Anton said he thinks restaurants will return in full force, but there are some looming unknowns: How fast can they overcome the debt they’ve incurred during the pandemic? How patient will debtors be?
“From what I can tell by watching other states, watching vaccination rates and seeing what restaurant owners can do, all the elements are there that the volume of business will return,” he said.
Debt is still something that some restaurant owners are dealing with, and it’s unclear how many restaurants are in debt — something many owners won’t discuss.
But help could come in the form of the federal government’s Restaurant Revitalization Act, part of the American Rescue Plan that President Joe Biden signed on March 11. It includes $28 billion for restaurant relief, but the rules haven’t been developed and restaurant owners are waiting for more clarification.
Anton said that if Washington gets its fair share of the money, he assumes that the state will receive $249 million.
“The intention is to go to those that experienced big losses,” he said.
New restaurants like the Hardins’ are able to start from scratch and build a business model up, they said, and having a food cart makes fewer worries than brick-and-mortar indoor spots.
“It’s easier, smaller and has less overhead,” David Hardin said.
The couple met in Bangkok, Thailand, in 2006 while David Hardin was deployed with the U.S. Navy. After settling in Camas, the couple operated a brick-and-mortar Thai restaurant near Mill Plain Boulevard and 136th Street from 2015 to 2017.
The couple moved to Washington, D.C., for two years because of David Hardin’s work, and then they came back to Camas. In January, the couple opened the brand-new food cart that they bought from a Portland manufacturer.
“It’s been great,” David Hardin said. “We have returning customers and great feedback.”