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Is Seattle’s restaurant emergency a sign of things to come for the industry?

Restaurants in the biggest city in the first state hit by coronavirus are struggling to survive amid the quarantines. Here’s what some are doing to stay afloat.
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Photograph: Shutterstock

Washington was the first state to report a coronavirus case. And, in the weeks since, its restaurant industry has been shaken to its core.

At least a half-dozen Seattle restaurants have closed permanently, according to local media reports and restaurant social media, and more than a dozen have announced temporary closures, including the stunning announcement late Wednesday that Seattle’s best-known chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas would be temporarily closing all 12 of his establishments, effective Sunday, after sales declined up to 90% since the outbreak began, according to The Seattle Times.

“I am sad for our city,” Douglas told The Times. “It’s tough going for Seattle now. I am optimistic [that] at the end of the day, in eight to 12 weeks, we will be back at it.”

Award-winning fine-dining bastion Canlis announced Thursday it will temporarily shutter its restaurant Monday and open three new concepts in its place: A “bagel shed” for breakfast, a drive-thru burger spot for lunch and a family-meal delivery service for dinner.

Fine dining is not what Seattle needs right now,” Canlis said in a Facebook post. “Instead, this is one idea for safely creating jobs for our employees while serving as much of the city as we can.

The first coronavirus case in the country was reported in Washington state on Jan. 21, in a person who had recently traveled from Wuhan, China, where the now-pandemic respiratory illness began. As of Thursday, there were 373 confirmed cases statewide and 30 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Joe Fugere has owned Seattle’s Tutta Bella, a five-unit Italian wood-fired pizza concept, for 15 years. He called this his restaurant’s “worst crisis,” including the recession and major weather events. With that in mind, he recently sat down with his entire staff to create a six-month plan to keep the business open.

“We said, ‘We have to be pragmatic,’” Fugere said. “We don’t want to be doom and gloom, but let’s be serious about this. … What’s it going to be like if this crisis continues? Our sales are down 20%-25%. We would lose $3 million in revenue and our employees would lose almost $1 million in lost wages. We used facts before emotion.”

Fugere told the staff he would give up his salary for the immediate future, and many employees followed, he said, offering to go down to four days a week or give up shifts for others who needed them.

“I can’t control the revenue coming in,” he said. “I can control some of the expenses going out.”

He started offering free delivery on orders over $25, and his restaurants are now promoting curbside pickup, with employees bringing food out to waiting cars. Delivery sales have gone up 10%-15%, he said, offsetting a bit the steep drop in dine-in traffic.

Those in the Seattle restaurant community are rallying around each other, largely via social media, to support the city’s struggling establishments.

A new Facebook group called Seattle Restaurant Support now has more than 600 members, who are making plans to dine out at the city’s restaurants and flooding virtual tip jars with money for employees while also posting about the latest closures.

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