By Mike De Felice
Special to Kitsap Daily News
South Kitsap restaurants are striving to come up with a recipe to keep their doors open and serve their customers during these COVID-19 times.
Ingredients to make this work include developing ways to exclusively do takeout service and serve – and generate additional — loyal customers.
Nationally, Forbes magazine reports the U.S. restaurant industry employs 7 percent of all employment in the county. The National Restaurant Association this month said the restaurant industry, more than any other industry in the nation, has suffered the most significant sales and job losses since the COVID-19 outbreak began.
The association estimates more than 8 million restaurant employees have been laid off or furloughed. The food-services industry lost $80 billion in sales by the end of last month.
A look at four Port Orchard restaurants reveals that since Gov. Jay Inslee ordered restaurants to close their doors to dine-in customers, they suffered between a 30- and 80-percent decrease in business with a corresponding loss of staff. Despite these troubling numbers, many restaurant owners’ spirits seem high.
When the Stay at Home order was initiated in the state, at least 22 establishments in Port Orchard and South Kitsap revamped their operations to offer meal takeout and curbside pickup.
A few months into the coronavirus outbreak, here is a look at how some Port Orchard restaurants are doing.
The Dock Bar and Eatery
The Dock Bar and Eatery normally serves seafood, sandwiches, burgers and salads, and provides full bar service to a 70-seat service area in the Port Orchard Market on Bay Street.
When the governor ordered restaurants to close their doors to inside dining, her restaurant’s business dropped 60 percent, said Coreen Haydock, one of The Dock’s three owners.
“People were really frightened. They didn’t know what they could do and where they could get food,” Haydock said. “Our business is slowly climbing up. Some days are better than others. Currently, we are down about 30 percent.”
“We are a community-oriented restaurant,” she said. “We have captured a loyal customer base, which has made of lot of effort to continue to get takeout from us. That has helped us stay alive.”
On the first day the establishment went to takeout only, a customer purchased $500 in gift cards to give to first responders.
“We get texts and e-mails telling us, ‘We got your back’ and ‘We are supporting you.’ You are reminded that [these] people are your friends and loyal,” Haydock said.
Relaxing alcohol laws to allow restaurants to make alcohol to-go sales has helped business improve, she said.
“The Liquor Control Board made rule changes so we can send out, with food orders, cocktail kits, bottles of wine, six-packs and sealed beer growlers,” Haydock noted.
The reduction of business, though, has led to staff cuts.
During peak season last summer, The Dock Bar and Eatery had 17 employees. Currently, there are five employees — two are full time and three are part time, Haydock said. By the end of the month, management hopes to bring back more staff.
“When the Stay at Home order first came out, our business went down about 70 percent. Now it’s gradually coming back,” said Patsy Ring, general manager of the Bethel Junction Subway. “This time of year, we usually do $1,200 to $1,400 a day. Now it’s about $600 to $800.”
Tables in the store have been blocked off and six-foot social distancing marks have been placed on the floor. All touch points in the store – door handles, the soda machine, register and card reader – are regularly sanitized, Ring said. A sanitizer dispenser has been added for customer use. Employees continue to wear gloves and now also wear masks, she added.
Hours have been reduced as have staff hours, though layoffs have been avoided.
The store has reduced its daily hours and operates with a skeleton staff, the manager said. “We are slowly getting busier but employees are still low on hours.”
Even with the reduction in business and smaller paychecks for workers, Ring says the situation has a bright side.
“This has brought the staff closer together as a team. We are all working together, watching out for each other more and covering shifts. Comradery has increased.”
Also, customers have expressed appreciation that the store has remained open during the pandemic.
“This store seems to get a lot of the elderly. They are very thankful we are open because they find Subway is the healthy thing for them to eat when they don’t feel like cooking or don’t want fast food. Someone came in this morning and said, ‘You are awesome for being open!’ It makes workers feel good and appreciated. It makes them want to be at work.”
Ruby Slipper Bar and Grill
When Gov. Inslee restricted restaurant operations, the Ruby Slipper had only been open for 39 days since being closed for 14 months due to damage from a freak tornado that hit Port Orchard in December 2018.
The restaurant is only doing curbside service.
“I didn’t have any back-up savings. My back-up went away with the tornado,” said Ruby Slipper owner Shari Patrick.
“Our business has dropped at least 80 percent,” Patrick said. “It started picking up a little last week but with the nice weather coming and more people barbecuing, I can see that improvement going bye-bye.”
“I had 12 employees. Now, I have absolutely no one on payroll. It’s me and my daughter working without a paycheck. I’m barely keeping the door open. I can pay the gas and electric bills with what I can take made on takeout.”
Patrick’s daughter, Bonnie, who has always helped at the establishment, has a beauty salon, Rabid Poodle, which was closed by the Stay at Home order. Bonnie is now free to help her mom more at the restaurant.
To adapt to these new times, the Ruby Slipper’s largely comfort food menu has been reduced to suit the nature of takeout.
“I’m not serving my whole menu because a lot of stuff does not do well on takeout,” Patrick explained.
Items that have been cut: “My Wisconsin cheese curds that I make from scratch. If they get cold, they are not good; they get rubbery. Also, loaded fries (fries covered with brown gravy, cheese or chili). By the time they get home, they get soggy.”
Popular items for takeout: burgers, Ruben sandwiches and a new item, “take and bake” pans.
“The take and bakes have been popular,” Patrick said. “You take them home and bake them. They feed a family of four. Each week is different. I’ve done lasagna, 9-inch chicken pot pies and white creamy chicken enchiladas.”
Puerto Vallarta was hit by an 80-percent drop of its business with the Stay at Home order, reports Sergio Andrade, who owns the restaurant with his wife Patricia.
A staff of 55 has been cut to seven, which includes himself, his chef and some cooks and servers, Andrade said. Daily operating hours have been reduced by three hours though the business continues to remain open seven days a week.
Loyal customers are helping keep the establishment afloat.
“I look at it like this: people don’t have to spend their money at my restaurant. I appreciate they do. So many people are in tough situations just like we are. I think sometimes they could stay home and cook their own meal but I think they see the need to keep us and other restaurants in business because we are part of the community. We help each other out,” Andrade said.
“We hear a lot of people coming in to order food, saying, ‘How are you guys doing? Hope things are going great. We are going to come in as many times as we can’.”
Cinco de Mayo, May 5, is the busiest day of the year at Puerto Vallarta.
“We saw a tremendous amount of support for us that day. So much that we were not able to take care of our guests the way we would have liked,” Andrade said.
On that busy day, there was not enough staff available to handle the demand.
“We had to lay off many people and they were unable to come work that day out of concern they would jeopardize their unemployment benefits,” he said.
Customers may have had to wait for their food, but no one complained as everyone understood the situation, Andrade said.
Interestingly, a bright side of the current situation for workers at Puerto Vallarta is that tips have increased.
“Tipping has been very generous,” he remarked. “We as owners don’t partake so the employees who are working fewer hours are making pretty good money, which is great.”
One customer in fact comes in every week and orders several fajitas. His bill is about $50 and his tips $100. “The customer feels everyone in the community should help each other out,” Andrade said. “That is appreciated.”
Looking to the future for these and other local restaurants, when phase two of the state’s coronavirus Safe Start reopening plan begins in Kitsap County – which was just announced by the governor’s office — restaurants will be able to have dine-in customers.
There are several requirements restaurants will need to meet in this phase, according to the governor’s office. Among them: a restaurant must operate at 50% or less capacity; space tables must be 6 feet apart; have no more than five guests at a table; utilize single-use menus, request dine-in customers to provide their contact information (e-mail and telephone number) to assist with contract tracing; and serve no salad bars or buffets. Also, employees are to be screened for signs or symptoms of COVID-19 at the start of every shift.
Nine small counties with no recent coronavirus cases have been cleared to enter Phase Two, including: Columbia, Ferry, Garfield, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Skamania, Stevens, Whitman and Wahkiakum counties.