PORT ORCHARD — The unprecedented global pandemic spawned by the novel coronavirus — increasingly known by its scientific name COVID-19 — is guided by statistics measured in percentages.
As in how many millions of Americans have been tested for the virus and how many have been found to be positive. And what percentage of those testing positive have died after contracting the virulent organism responsible for nearly 240,000 deaths in this country in 2020.
In the cold, rigid mathematical world of an actuary, it’s been a societal event of massive reckoning. But as those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 or have friends and family members working in service industries such as restaurants, bars and places of social gatherings, who have lost their economic livelihood, it’s been a year filled with emotions ranging from annoyance to depression to heartache.
There are the obvious economic consequences of the pandemic: employees without work, businesses struggling to survive a barren consumer market, and mom-and-pop entrepreneurs losing their lifetime investments after being forced to close their doors when the money ran out.
While the debate rages on about the efficacy of shutting down social and commercial life in order to curtail the pandemic, it’s apparent to a growing percentage of people that there are no simple solutions to effectively contain the viral superstorm short of a globally accepted vaccine. Meanwhile, there’s little chance of creating a win-win situation for citizens at large and for businesses on Main Street USA — and the people who depend on them to make a living.
But that hasn’t quelled the effort of many people here in South Kitsap (see below) to mitigate the disastrous impact on restaurants and bars as their owners struggle to stay afloat following indoor seating restrictions were instituted by the state to quell the spread of the deadly virus. A second round of restrictions on eating establishments was imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday.
Restaurants face an uncertain future
When the specter of a coronavirus pandemic settled over the global landscape in March, residents in relatively isolated Kitsap County came to the realization that their world was about to change in significant ways. The prospect of dealing with a potentially deadly virus was multiplied by the growing sense shared by small business owners that their investments and life savings were at risk of disappearing, along with their depended-upon crowd of customers to their restaurants.
Restaurants and bars — a risky business proposition in the best of times — are labor-intensive operations hyperfocused on the costs of employing people to prepare meals, wait on tables and handle the endless chores required to make a restaurant function. And there are myriad costs associated above and beyond those costs, including building leases, maintenance and marketing, that owners must address as they pay the bills.
When Gov. Inslee introduced COVID-19 restrictions impacting restaurants and bars this spring, The Dock Bar & Eatery’s Sego and co-owner Coreen Haydock, his wife, recognized that without customers, there would be no need to have employees on site. And no work meant no paychecks for their hardworking staff.
Sego, an active community leader in Port Orchard who also owns Waterman Investment Partners, said he and Haydock pondered what avenue their business could take to stay in business and ultimately survive the pandemic. Their solution? Connect with other restaurants in Kitsap County and join forces with the nonprofit Arc of the Peninsulas to prepare packaged meals for delivery to people facing tough times through organizations such as the Rescue Mission and Retsil Veterans Home that serve the homeless population, low-income families, at-risk teens and critical-care staff tending to seriously ill patients.
After overcoming a complex learning curve in figuring out how to prepare quality, nutritious meals in assembly-line fashion and keeping costs in line, Sego and his Full Circle Meals team created a system by which restaurants could keep as many of their employees at work — and pay them — while preparing meals to be delivered to locations housing target populations.
“I asked Chris [Tibbs, executive director of the Arc] how they were doing with their clients?” Sego said of the agency that provides assistance to individuals with developmental disabilities here in Kitsap. Many of them live at or below minimum wage and rarely, if ever, have an opportunity to enjoy fine dining at a restaurant.
Sego offered a novel solution: “How about we provide meals that could be delivered by staff to clients who need them?”
After asking for financial donations from generous benefactors in the community to fund the initiative, Sego was able to raise $60,000 to kick off the program. Restaurants participating in the effort would be paid $20 for each meal they would prepare — thereby offering the businesses a lifeline to survive and pay their bills, including salaries.
Beneficiaries included restaurant establishments across Kitsap County.
“Sure, I want to give back to the community. I think I’m an altruistic guy, but this restaurant [The Dock] is also about our family, our livelihood, as well as our community. None of this is going to be here in five years,” he said, pointing to businesses on Bay Street outside his Port Orchard Public Market location, “unless we all help each other.”
Down the street and up the hill from The Dock is Suanne Martin Smith’s Home Made Cafe, a quaint, eclectic little restaurant that’s been in existence for eight years. Martin Smith said Sundays are typically her restaurant’s busiest day with customers lined up outside the door.
Years defined by hard work exacted in seven-day-a-week fashion mattered little as her business’s forced closure earlier this year devastated hard-earned achievements the restaurant had earned in that period.
“Our closure kicked our revenues from year eight back to what they were in year three,” she said.
After participating in the Full Circle Meals project, Martin Smith said her business has been able to stay afloat. By October, she said customers were once again lining up waiting for a table on Sundays, their busiest day.
“I don’t think my restaurant would have survived,” she said, without the project.
Just when customers began to return at a steady pace, the governor’s new restrictions took effect this week, sending her hopes — and those of many of her devoted customers — into a tailspin.
“I spoke with some of my regular customers about having to close again, and they got teary-eyed. They are afraid we won’t be able to open again,” Martin Smith said.
The restrictions are all the more devastating to her little place since it has just a half-dozen tables inside and no suitable outdoor space in the winter.
But despite yet another challenge to her business — taking place during the usually lucrative Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday period — Martin Smith said she remains stoic and hopeful.
The Home Made Cafe will once again be an active participant in the Full Circle Meals project. That will help, as will her fierce determination.
“I tell my customers that I’m too tired and too old to start over — and I’m too stubborn.”
Keeping project afloat
Sego said the Full Circle Meals project raised more than $450,000 and delivered more than 30,000 meals to those in need across Kitsap County, prepared by at least 35 restaurants from Port Orchard to Bainbridge Island. But with the latest COVID wave reaching unprecedented numbers of positive cases, more funding will be needed to meet the new challenge of a second set of restrictions, Sego said.
Through donations from businesses and individuals, including those given via a GoFundMe account on the Arc website, Sego said $30,000 of the $60,000 needed to fund the effort through the end of the year has been raised. He said the group was unable to snag a substantial national foundation grant from Albertsons/Safeway, but a regional grant application is a possibility.