Restauranteurs struggling to survive in a COVID-19 world

The thin margins of small-business restaurants, crippled customer access, putting them on the brink

PORT ORCHARD — Owner Suanne Martin Smith stared out the window as she stood behind the counter at her eclectic breakfast and lunch restaurant Home Made Cafe, which sits on the hill across from Port Orchard’s City Hall.

Smith, who’s known for her warm, cheery attitude that has contributed mightily to the success of her eatery, located in an old converted church building, had plenty on her mind. As in how she will pay her 10 employees over the coming months as the effects of a state-mandated closure necessitated by the virulent spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, threatened the solvency of her business.

“My employees have families to care for,” Smith said, and then paused. “I have children, too.”

Home Made Cafe owner Suanne Martin Smith (left) and restaurant manager Jeri Garcia prepare to begin offering takeout orders for Port Orchard customers. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)

Home Made Cafe owner Suanne Martin Smith (left) and restaurant manager Jeri Garcia prepare to begin offering takeout orders for Port Orchard customers. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)

She’s been one of Port Orchard’s longest-tenured restaurant owners in an industry known for tiny profit margins, long hours and susceptibility to volatile market swings. But her ingrained optimism has taken a beating this week as a result of the coronavirus’s nuclear blast to businesses here and nationwide.

It’s a sad situation. And it’s also a lesson where fairness isn’t part of the equation as to what business will survive and which one will fail from the adversity. Global behemoth Boeing was reported on Monday to be asking the federal government for a minimum of $60 billion in bailout loans. But for small potatoes retailers, helping-hand options are limited, although the state and Small Business Administration have begun offering small-interest loans to help them survive the crisis.

Loans, however helpful they may be in the short term, invariably will fall due along with a proprietor’s other bills at the end of the month.

What they need — and what the Home Made Cafe needs — are customers.

“It is difficult normally for a restaurant such as ours to stay in business,” she said. “In the worst of times like this, it’s impossible.”

In the meantime, the restaurant has been preparing a simplified menu so that customers can order meals on a pick-up-and-go basis. Smith and Jeri Garcia, the restaurant’s manager, have prepared signs alerting prospective customers of the service, which they said would be available from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. each day.

She said the business has posted their pick-up service option on social media, resulting in between 15 and 20 phone calls from customers. But so far on Tuesday, no one had placed an order.

Still, Garcia put on a brave face.

“As long as there’s food here, we’ll make it available,” she said with a smile. “We’re not quitters.”

Carter & Co.

Carter & Company on Bay Street in downtown Port Orchard has become a popular stopping point for shoppers looking to indulge in the shop’s chocolates, pastries and sandwiches. It’s had a number of different locations in town over the years but found its prime location next to Josephine’s Mercantile in 2018.

Restauranteurs struggling to survive in a COVID-19 world

It’s doing well in a storefront space in a building managed by Abadan Holdings LLC, which is owned by Seattle investor Mansour Samadpour. Luckily for business owners Matt Carter and John Strasinger, Samadpour has waived their April rent in consideration of the economic havoc created by COVID-19. Abadan and Samadpour, which owns a sizable portion of the buildings downtown, has also extended rental waivers to all of its tenants.

For that, Strasinger said he’s grateful. He says he’s fully supportive of the measures to mitigate the spread of the disease. Meanwhile, the shop owners are investigating options in which they can continue to operate as a takeout operation.

“Most of our business is takeout anyway, but I certainly don’t feel good about how things have developed,” he said. “We’ve had a drop of about one-third of our business since this thing happened.”

The co-owner said he’s considering revamping his popular Sunday Suppers concept for takeout and altering the business into an appointment-only operation for the duration of the epidemic by selling wedding cakes and preparing items on a catering basis.

Meanwhile, though, he’s carefully watching his supply chain for product availability.

“One of our suppliers had only one kind of flour available, and that was in limited quantities,” Strasinger said. “We’ll probably end up selling down our inventory and see where that takes us.”

The Dock Bar and Eatery

Coreen Haydock and her husband Steve Sego and partner Drew MacEwen own The Dock Bar and Eatery in the Port Orchard Market, and up until last weekend had seen business in their establishment thrive — right up to when they were required to stop serving walk-in customers.

“Sundays are usually slow, but this past weekend, we were really busy. And up to this point, March was our best ever,” Haydock said from home, where she was feverishly working to develop a simple business website so customers could order takeout service. And there’s also planning underway to shuffle employee schedules and enlist social media to get the word out about their takeout service.

She said a simplified menu has been developed for customers, who can order from it, then come by to pick up their meals. But getting to the point where customers are aware they are offering the service, will take time. And whether it will be enough to keep the restaurant open during this time is speculative at best.

“I’m optimistic and my husband is always optimistic,” she said by phone. “He looks at it as just another problem to overcome and a fight to take on.”

But the civic activist and business owner says she worries that the fight to halt the spread of COVID-19 through social separation just might be leading small restaurant businesses toward ruin.

Like a cancer patient receiving doses of chemotherapy to halt the spread of cancer, the treatment sometimes is as damaging as the disease.

“I’m not sure if the damage and destruction to businesses in our community and state is worth it.”

But Haydock said their business and their employees will persevere.

“We don’t want to be part of the demise of downtown Port Orchard, that’s for sure.”

Takeout service

While restaurants statewide were ordered by Gov. Jay Inslee to close their doors to walk-in customers, at least 22 establishments in Port Orchard and South Kitsap have, or are making, arrangements to offer meal takeout and curbside pickup.

The following establishments have indicated they plan to participate in the service:

Blue Agave Mexican Grill; Blue Ocean Crab & Fish & Pho; Brick House 714 Bar and Grill; Carbon Mexican Steakhouse (takeout only); Carter’s Bay Street; Coffee Oasis; Crescent Moon (Port Orchard deliveries only); Farmer Rosie’s Cafe; Grey House; La Palapa; Leanna’s Art & Coffee; Manchester Grill; Masa Pizza; Minas Cafe; Minder Meats’ Puerto Vallarta; Ruby Slipper; Seabeck Pizza; Sue’s Fresh Juice Bar and Sandwich Shop; That One Place; The Dock Bar & Eatery; and Uncle Dave’s Cafe.

Businesses with high concentrations of customers and restaurants have been ordered closed by Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)

Businesses with high concentrations of customers and restaurants have been ordered closed by Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee. (Bob Smith | Kitsap Daily News)