What is it like to own a restaurant during a pandemic? The Westy Sports and Spirits has a story to tell
By Paul Ritums
ED NOTE: Paul Ritums and JP Vidicans are the owners of The Westy Sports and Spirits in West Seattle and Roosevelt. Like many restaurant owners the Coronavirus pandemic has meant lost revenue, lost employees, strained relationships, huge uncertainty and an emotional roller coaster for them and many others. Westside Seattle asked Paul for his thoughts about his experience and what it all means to him.
Writing this is difficult.
There are so many thoughts and emotions cycling constantly from day to day, hour to hour, and even minute by minute. Swaying one way or the other based off one comment, news story or people’s actions/inactions. These words come out of fear, frustration, concern and from what I have learned from navigating the uncertainty of the last 3 ½ months of this Pandemic (let’s just leave out the more recent political and civil rights conversation.
Not because it is not important, it very much is, let us just limit it for the sake of scope of this topic)
I am writing now, by no means claiming to be an expert on the topic or anything remotely tied to it, but because I was asked to share thoughts and discuss the steps we’ve taken to survive as a business in the ever-changing landscape we find ourselves in. I am also writing because I am seeing the emergence of an unfortunate cycle. I am not necessarily referring to a rise in COVID-19 cases again, though it is seemingly tied. To avoid jumping around from everything bouncing around in my head, it is probably best to start from the beginning.
This starts back to when the concern over COVID-19 first began to find its way into our day to day conversations and news stories. In early March, many restaurants began seeing the effects of the rise and fears associated with it. During that time, I stand by the notion that any reputable food establishment was cleaner than most individuals homes. The level of cleaning and sanitation that was being practiced was above and beyond what any ordinary person would tackle. Just find a food service worker and ask them about the condition of their hands during that time. I can attest to the cracking, dried out skin, and constant smell of bleach. And to be honest that has not really changed since.
I knew incredibly early on that there was an elephant in the room. Watching what was happening around the globe only pointed to the finite point that we would be needing to close things down to try to fight the spread. It weighed on me every night. It felt like a constant gut punch grappling with it. And to those that think & say “You guys should close. People should not be drinking together spreading the virus. Your in my neighborhood so are responsible for puting people at risk.” (exact message we received, including spelling) do not fully understand it is not as simple as that. There was no guidance, I had almost 40 people that not only worked for me, but that I worked side by side with to consider. Ultimately, we elected to make the call to shut down. Not because the local government mandated it. Not because of the words and messages from people, like the above. We closed so that we could turn the page and begin thinking about what was next. We informed all staff and advised them the steps to take, as best we could, before we ever made a public statement. We could never have foreseen the full mess that has plagued the Unemployment System in the fallout.
It took a week of sleepless nights to get things fully shut down and to grapple with what lied ahead. At one point I had nearly arrived that one of two businesses would not see the lights on again. This was only made more so with the added twist of losing the West Seattle Bridge. We finally made the decision to attempt some form of Carry-out Only service model, as it was deemed allowable through the lockdown. We elected to not allow any other individual through our doors, utilizing our roll up window at the entrance of our building for all guest transactions. There was a learning curve, and we attempted to react quickly to every hurdle we encountered. Adding additional food holding areas, adding in online ordering to alleviate the number of phone calls, relocating key necessary equipment to streamline and reduce the number of extra steps needing to be taken. It was a lot of work, but it was rewarding. The outpouring of support that we saw from the West Seattle community and the neighborhood around us was remarkable. It made it apparent that we could fight to make it through the other side of things. What started with just 3 of us working under the carryout model quickly needed to grow to keep up with demand, and we were able to bring back some staff to assist, which was a mutual benefit as they were unfortunately making no headway with Unemployment.
We also learned during the early stages that this model required an extreme sense of detail, as we were putting out product where once it left, we had no control over it. We could not fix an issue if it arose as we would have been able to with dine in. We had to make sure that everything went out correctly and that nothing was missing with an order. This is something that was always strived for, but now had an extreme renewed diligence involved.
We went four weeks, navigating and finding imaginative ways to provide a service to the neighborhood. We added some grocery items, when we began hearing that some items were hard to come by unless purchased in bulk.
We developed Cocktail Kits, when it was allowed, for people to create their own experiences at home. We put together affordable family meals. The most rewarding of all, was having a group of West Seattle restaurant owners coming together to donate product and time to put together ready to heat meals for first responders and anyone that just found themselves on hard times. This became a weekly occurrence during the peak of the whole shutdown. Individuals coming together, who were all going through extremely difficult situations themselves, to help others.
There were also changes in regulations to navigate, and here is where some of the frustrations began to form again. Adding in the previously discussed Cocktail kits required developing batched recipes that were easy for people at home to follow, finding containers to hold ingredients for travel and storage, and present it in an appealing way. We found ways to make it all work and made sure to follow the rules that were laid out. It became frustrating to see places that were clearly not following guidelines. Putting out ready to drink cocktails, before it was allowed for. Not requiring food purchases, allowing guests waiting for carryout to purchase a drink. IT was frustrating for a few reasons. It in some ways gave them a leg up from a business sense, it caused guest confusion/frustrations as they would get upset with us when we couldn’t give them what they wanted, or “this place did_______, why won’t you?” But more so we were worried that these places were going to ruin it for the rest of us and get the bone we were thrown to survive revoked. And this trend continued as the regulations continued to change. I should add that after 5 weeks we attempted to replicate the carryout model and all we learned at our second location. The future is still unknown how that unfolds.
Enter phase 1.5
Even before this became a thing, we were of the mindset that we would most likely wait for few weeks before opening under Phase 2. Operating at 50% was going to be difficult and not sustainable on its own. We would clearly need to still make Carryout a priority and trying to meet demand under both and strike a balance was going to bring on a whole new learning curve.
Most importantly we wanted to avoid reopening, to only be told to shut down again a couple weeks later. We also thought that most people would not be ready to dine in again anyway. When Phase 1.5 came in allowing 25% dine in and 50% outdoor dining, we did not change our model. But over the next week we clearly saw a trend emerge. The volume of phone calls picked up again, but they were not calling to place an order. They wanted to see if they could come dine in yet. When we gave them our answer, they would hang up and continue their search for a restaurant to eat at. The sales numbers in that first weekend probably dropped 20%, but that could have been because of a nice weekend.
Unfortunately, that trend continued as people looked for dine in establishments. Once again, we noticed when you give some places an inch, they take a mile. We began seeing places packing outdoor seating, not separating tables to allow social distancing, etc.… Then Phase 2 came in.
We attempted to allow limited dine-in at our second location in the Roosevelt neighborhood first, as it is much larger and made it easier to keep socially distant requirements and figure out navigating both models, as we had with carryout in West Seattle. It helped spark some renewed interest, as we saw a good number of guests interested in dining in again. We were back to where we were in early March, with the overly diligent sanitation practices, in addition to more. Staff wearing masks (also a practice we had been doing since April), temperature checks, and requiring guests to wear masks unless seated at their tables. In West Seattle we continued to see carryout numbers drop off as people continued to seek dine in, so we began to make the necessary changes and game plan. We officially began allowing for it on Friday June 26th.
I must say that the first day I worked with guests in the building again was surreal. Even though I had been around it at our second location for about a week, West Seattle is smaller and a little more intimate. Do not get me wrong. I was happy to see it, but for the past 3 months there had been a max of maybe 6 of us in the whole space. It was nice to have conversations with guests again. I naturally found myself staying a few steps further back than we would have once found ourselves. Some guests were respectful and put masks back on if they were not actively eating during the conversations, others did not, but that did not really bother me so much. Most conversations covered the same topics. People expressing how happy to be out again, the notions of masks and trends, what new skills/projects people took on while being stuck at home, and so forth. Those were the positive interactions.
Then there are those who do not want to wear masks or follow the rules. Those who choose to belittle the ones that follow the rules, and deal with the minor inconvenience that is a mask, in a hope that by doing so we can continue on the path to get back to normal. I have seen more and more stories of fellow food service and retail workers having to tackle the role of policing other people to adhere to guidelines on top of the standard day to day job roles. And here we are again, on the precipice of being told we must shut things down again. Taking the cues of areas around us doing the same because they went too quickly or because people could not take the responsible steps to keep things moving forward. We see some local businesses having to make tough calls again. I respect the decision of fellow West Seattle Restaurant, Arthur’s, to take a step back again as an abundance of caution. I see lots of people stepping up to show their support for their decision, and that is great, but again I see people coming forward and condemning other businesses for staying open.
People do not have all the facts and cannot begin to understand the many different facets of the juggling act that is life right now, let alone while owning a business on top of it. So by all means show your support for those businesse's decisions, but it can be done in a way that doesn’t vilify the establishments that are going above and beyond to keep things clean, follow the set of (everchanging) rules and restrictions to keep moving forward.
The above, while longer than I initially intended, just scratches the surface of the last 3 months. I am sure many details are missing and could be expanded on. I ultimately just needed to get some things out of my head and down on paper. I am not looking to change anyone’s mind, but to provide some insight and perspective. Ultimately, we all need to be diligent and act with an abundance of caution and do our best to hopefully keep moving forward and beat this thing. And if that means wearing a mask, as much as it may be a mild inconvenience, then that is a small ask in the grand scheme of things.
The Westy West Seattle at 7908 35th Ave SW. is currently open for Carryout and limited Dine-in, 4pm – 10pm daily
Call (206) 937-8977
The Westy Roosevelt at 1215 NE 65th Street is currently open for Carryout and limited Dine-in, 4pm – 10pm daily