By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Wednesday, June 30 could not have come sooner for Washington state! Not only did it bring us respite from the scorching 100-degree temperature days we almost melted through, but it also gets us a step closer to normal life after Covid-19.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced in May that our state could lift most Covid-related business restrictions on June 30. This means your favorite restaurant is now able to open at full capacity, you will not have to stay six feet away from other diners, and, if you’re vaccinated, you can say goodbye to face masks.
For more than a year now, restaurants in Seattle have been stretched thin while state and health officials tried to tame the pandemic. Restaurant owners have had to shut down, operate as take-out only, let go of staff, and get creative to keep their businesses alive.
Take 116-year-old Japanese restaurant Maneki for instance. During the pandemic, Maneki had to shut down but it received a new lease of life. Cash donations poured in from patrons to help keep the institution afloat.
Overwhelmed by the love and support, Nakayama decided to operate as take-out only and kickstarted a website, manekiseattle.com, where customers can place their orders online. The restaurant has learned many lessons through the pandemic. For Nakayama, two stand out.
“First, is our ability to be highly adaptive in an industry that can be made or broken so easily without sustained financial stability,” Nakayama said. “Second, do not underestimate the compassion and neighborly love by our community. We are grateful for all the care and support in our time of need,” she said.
Having never provided take out service in the restaurant’s history, Nakayama saw it as an opportunity for Maneki to continue something that her customers enjoy. Given the small size of their kitchen, the restaurant is working on the details of how it will uphold its stellar dining experience while being able to offer convenient take out items.
“We may need to ask for some patience as we determine what we are able to offer,” Nakayama said, hinting at what their take-out might include, “Everyone seems to miss our sushi and sashimi.”
During the past year Maneki had to reduce staff and hours and some of their seasoned workers had to find additional work elsewhere to make ends meet. As restaurants reopen, Maneki is cautious.
“Our approach will be a slower reopening due to limited staffing so as to not overwhelm our chefs,” Nakayama said. She confirms that hiring in the service industry is challenging in a field where everyone is competing for the same talent as they scout for new replacements.
“We hope to attract passionate applicants who want to be part of the community and legacy of Maneki,” she said.
However, things haven’t been quiet at the restaurant during this period. A $45,000 investment from Puget Sound Energy has resulted in the restaurant becoming more energy efficient with better lighting and energy-saving appliances.
Dimmable lights in the tatami room and a walk through Maneki’s history in pictures is what patrons can expect when they finally score a table at the restaurant.
“Honestly, we are still concerned for our elders,” Nakayama said. “We know progress is being made and we look forward to seeing those smiles again in our tatami rooms soon.”
“Covid has affected us deeply,” said Vivian Xiao, the owner of Ho Ho Seafood Restaurant. “We had so few customers because everyone was afraid to go out to eat. Then, things got very expensive during the pandemic. When customers come in without masks, we provide one. Mask prices have been rising. It costs more than $1 each. We have to serve our customers with plastic gloves—which cost as much as $20 for a pack of 100. This does not include the increased food prices or the prices of to-go boxes.”
Ho Ho re-opened on June 30, and the restaurant is requesting that customers wear masks for everyone’s safety.
If you’ve missed Harry Chan’s welcoming face behind the counter, reading the hand-written specials on the mirror or just simply ordering your favorite dish at Tai Tung Restaurant, you will soon be able to go back in there and pretend like the pandemic never happened.
“We didn’t have to lay off any of our staff due to the pandemic,” Chan said. Instead, the restaurant reduced hours when things came to a crawl last year. That will save Chan the trouble of looking for new staff in a job market where good staff has become very hard to find.
When things reopen, Chan expects business to return to 70-80% of what it was pre-pandemic.
“I think people will still be a little hesitant to come out and dine, but we are always hoping for the best,” he said.
Slow business forced Jade Garden to up its delivery game during the pandemic. Eric Chan, whose family owns the restaurant, made delivery runs as far as Factoria to deliver dumplings to customers on the Eastside. To make things more difficult, the restaurant was vandalized and burglarized twice in 2020.
Unable to see their favorite restaurant boarded up, muralists covered the boards with art, sparking a movement that saw other artists cover boarded up windows throughout the International District with messages of hope and solidarity that have become a sign of community and resilience during an especially tough time.
The pandemic has changed a lot of things for Jade Garden, but Chan said, “We are going to be here doing what we have always done—serving people like we always have done.”
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.