By Jake Goldstein-Street
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
With COVID-19 forcing restaurants to close down in-person dining, Tai Tung restaurant owner Harry Chan says business has been cut in half.
But that doesn’t mean he wants seated customers at his King Street restaurant in the heart of the International District just yet.
“I am in no rush to open for dine-in right now,” Chan said.
And yet with half capacity in-person dining possible in the next few weeks, the state says restaurants need to build a plan if they’re going to move to this next stage.
“Now is the time to start planning,” said Joe Graham, food safety program supervisor at the Washington State Department of Health.
But dining won’t look the same for those who choose to eat out. In order to have diners sit down, restaurants must follow more than a dozen rules outlined by the state, including limiting tables to five guests, ample hand sanitizer for patrons and staff, rearranged seating to ensure tables are 6 feet apart, and single-use condiments and menus.
It is also “strongly suggested” customers wear a cloth face mask when they’re not seated.
Local health departments won’t be doing inspections prior to opening, so as long as restaurants show they have a plan, they’ll be permitted to re-open, Graham said. Inspections will come later and in addition to the usual checks for proper food storage and other safety measures, they will also check for COVID-19 prevention strategies such as social distancing.
“The whole goal here is just to make sure that we don’t have to go backwards so that we can keep on going forward,” Graham said.
Chan says these rules are going to force Tai Tung to operate in a “completely different” way than it has over the course of its 85 years in the neighborhood.
Richard Chang, the owner of Kau Kau BBQ across the street from Tai Tung, says with a 90-person occupancy, he’ll be able to have 45 diners at a time. He’s been working to get in line with state guidance, but thinks some of his wait staff and bussers will be apprehensive about coming back.
He thinks they’ll still be nervous about interac
ting with customers, even if they maintain a 6-foot distance.
“How is my staff going to be comfortable with the customer? How is the customer going to be comfortable with the staff that’s serving them?” Chang asked. “Those are the hurdles that we have not even figured out yet.”
Carol Xie, daughter of Purple Dot Cafe owner Jason Xie, echoed the challenges with the 6-foot distance between customers.
“When you go to a dim sum restaurant, you want that lively atmosphere. Imagining everyone having to sit far apart… it’s just not going to be the same,” Xie said. “At a dim sum place, one family at a table will recognize another table and go over for a chat or even join tables. That won’t be possible anymore.”
Chang was also worried about one controversial aspect of the state’s rules, which said it would have to “create a daily log of all customers and maintain that daily log for 30 days,” which would include phone numbers, email addresses, and the time they dined. This provision was included for contact tracing purposes, but Gov. Jay Inslee rolled it back in a May 15 statement, saying that rule is instead voluntary for customers who choose to give such information.
Chang, who has set up several hand sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant, plans to re-open Kau Kau to in-person service when given the opportunity, but he expects the shift will have its bumps.
“There’s a learning curve for everyone,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chang’s expenses continue to rise, with personal protective equipment like masks and gloves required for employees and the increasing cost of pork, beef, and chicken. He’s got a skeleton staff now, he said, but when in-person dining returns, he’ll have more staffers, and that means more equipment. Chang estimates gloves and masks alone will cost at least an extra $1,000 per month.
He has also had trouble procuring gloves and masks over the past six weeks. If it continues like this for six months or a year, Chang doesn’t think there’s enough masks readily available to support his 10- to 15-person staff.
On top of that, Kau Kau has had to continue raising prices with the pandemic hurting meat supply. And his vendors tell him prices will go up by another third in the next week.
Because of this, Chang says his profit margins are shrinking. Even the 20% of business he estimates will come back with dine-in service might not be enough to keep the 50-year-old business alive.
“It’s just like a rubber band,” he said. “You can only stretch it so much and then it’s gonna snap.”
Xie said some of the re-opening guidelines stipulate that restaurant operators can allow only single-use items.
“That would include all our utensils, plates, and glasses. It will eat up a lot of our resources. Even our menus cannot be reused. They will have to be one-time paper menus and we have a large menu,” said Xie.
Chan thinks restaurants will eventually return to normalcy, but it’ll be a while.
“It’s going to be a completely different ballgame,” he said. “I think it’s going to take a long, long, long time before we can get back to the way we were.”