Many Seattle restaurants, including beloved icons like Beth’s Café, Dahlia Lounge and Tup Tim Thai, have closed during the pandemic. But that hasn’t stopped many more from opening. Meet two restaurateurs who have chosen to launch new businesses despite uncertain times.
The restaurant business is not for the faint of heart. It’s hard work with slim profit margins. Still, it attracts people like Yasuaki Saito. His latest venture is St. Bread on Portage Bay near the University of Washington. It opened last April.
“Some people say it might be stupid,” Saito said with a laugh. The St. Bread is housed in a former shipyard and offers Japanese and Danish-inspired pastries and sandwiches. Plans for the cafe were in the works even before the pandemic. Saito said they still decided to go ahead.
“When you’re a small business owner, you have to be a little fearless in some ways,” he said. “You also have to have a huge belief, there has to be something you really believe in that’s going to resonate with others.”
Saito has been working in this field for more than 15 years. He is co-owner of London Plane on Pioneer Square in Seattle and Post Alley Pizza on Harbor Steps. He says the pandemic has added a layer of challenges. This includes protecting staff and guests from Covid. Like many businesses, the store has a covered outdoor seating area which helped. But sometimes not every precaution can prepare you for the twists and turns of the pandemic.
“We definitely saw a big drop starting with the omicron surge at the end of the year and then throughout this first part of the year,” Saito said.
Rising food prices and labor shortages make survival even more difficult. To date, more than 3,300 restaurants in Washington have closed permanently since the pandemic. The Washington Hospitality Association, a trade group representing restaurants and hotels, fears others will follow without federal intervention. This is because many of those who are still afloat are carrying large debts, averaging $160,000.
Saito said in a way that the pandemic has revealed difficult issues facing the industry. It sparks conversations in public and makes some customers aware of the dilemmas companies face.
“People say, ‘Man, that’s a $9 sandwich, that’s so expensive,'” Saito said. “Well, actually, it probably could or should have been $11 sandwiches.
“But we’re trying to keep it in the double digits to make it more accessible to people.”
In Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood, chef-owner Preeti Agarwal samples dal and lamb dishes before the restaurant opens. Kricket Club, focused on modern Indian cuisine, is his second pandemic venture. At the start of the pandemic, she launched Meesha in Fremont. She sort of says the pandemic has created an appetite for new places to eat.
“I think people have been bored sitting at home for so long,” she said.
Agarwal says they would slow down at first. They opened at 50% capacity to give its staff time to familiarize themselves with the menu and operation.
“We were so overwhelmed with the response, and we were very excited,” Agarwal said. “At the same time, we weren’t ready to serve that many people.”
The winter months in general tend to be slow. Before the pandemic, restaurants worried about having enough diners. Now, in addition to volume, they ensure that staff are safe on the job and beyond.
“Protect yourself as much as you can, always wear a mask,” Agarwal told his staff. “Make sure you don’t meet a lot of people outside, go places, stay inside with 100 or 200 people.”
Agarwal said the pandemic has made small businesses more creative. As the pandemic drags on, everyone is tired. But she and St. Bread’s Yausaki Saito try to focus on the positive.
“I feel more like I’m doing this for the community and making people happy,” Agarwal said. “Everywhere, everywhere I go, people tell me this, thank you for opening this and introducing us to this amazing cuisine.”