Owners adapt to stay open for public
Methow Valley restaurants have transitioned to take-out only under Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, which does not allow restaurants to offer in-house dining.
Many restaurants have chosen, or been forced, to close for the foreseeable future, while those that have stayed open are, on the whole, limiting their hours of operation and menus.
Miki Eiffert, the owner of Mick and Miki’s Red Cedar Bar in Twisp, said closing time has been shifted a few hours earlier than normal, and she has now been shutting off the lights at 9 p.m.
“It’s been really slow, said Eiffert. “I’m mainly just staying open as a courtesy for people who are getting sick of their own cooking.”
Eiffert said the bar’s income is down 80% compared to last year, and she is now the only person working after laying off both her employees. But she has plans to hire them back once the order is lifted, and business returns to normal.
The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) is temporarily allowing restaurants that have alcohol licenses to sell factory-sealed bottles of beer, wine, and spirits, via curbside or delivery, with the purchase of food. The measure has not helped Eiffert, who said she’s only sold six bottles of beer since the order went into effect.
The new measure from the LCB has yet to produce more sales for the Old Schoolhouse Brewery, whose co-owner Jacob Young said growler sales have been down, partly because the brewery is not accepting used growlers because of cleanliness considerations — which has left the brewery with a lot of full kegs of beer. That sparked a decision to start canning the brewery’s beer.
“We have to adapt, adapting is the only way we’ll get through this,” said Young.
Canned beer is an adaptation that Young is excited about. “It’s going to be a big opportunity for us to get our beers into more people’s hands,” said Young, who plans to have cans available for purchase at local grocery stores, and has thoughts of eventually expanding distribution outside of the Methow Valley.
As for the Old Schoolhouse restaurant, food orders have been coming in, as the brewery scrambles to figure out systems for running a take-out only menu. “We’re not designed for service this way,” said Young. “It’s been a major adjustment.”
For one thing, the phones are at the front of the restaurant, while the kitchen is in the basement, meaning staff have to take calls upstairs and then run them down to the kitchen. Additionally, managing the pick-up of orders for patrons, who are following quarantine best practices, has been a feat of timing susceptible to bad weather, as the brewery has been leaving food orders outside the front door.
Young is working on getting an online ordering system up and running, and hopes to have it available next week for the brewery’s food orders. He imagines to-go ordering may become more commonplace for the restaurant business for the foreseeable future. “I think people will still want to space out more and get to-go food. It’s not just going to go back to normal, even after the ban is lifted,” said Young.
John Sinclair, owner of Sixknot Taphouse in Winthrop, agrees. “I just can’t see the elbow-to-elbow crowds we used to have. I just don’t see that kind of gathering for a while,” said Sinclair, who closed the restaurant a day before Inslee’s order went into effect.
Sinclair has been working on the developing apple cider vinegar on his apple farm, and focusing more on wholesale operations. Employees are now working on the farm, rather than at the restaurant.
Figuring it out
“We’re baking less Cinnamon Twisps, less bread, fewer cookies, all of our production is less, because sales are much less,” said Kathy Carney, manager at Cinnamon Twisp Bakery. Sales are down about 75-80%, according to Carney, who said employees’ hours have been reduced as well.
The bakery has kept its doors open during the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, offering take-out orders. Inside, chairs are stacked on the tables, the bathroom is not open to the public, the staff are all wearing masks, and the sanitizing of public surfaces is happening almost constantly. A timer beeps every 15 minutes as a reminder to start the sanitizing cycle over again. The bakery is urging people to call in orders in advance for pick-up.
“People are starting to figure out to call ahead,” said Carney. “If there is going to be a little bit of a wait they’ll go outside to wait if the weather is decent. [Otherwise, customers are] staying a good distance away from each other and the clerk.”
Next door, the Glover Street Market just unveiled a new spring menu for its cafe counter. However, take-out orders have been slow. “It’s about a quarter of what we’ve been doing … it’s pretty grim,” said owner Molly Patterson of the to-go counter service. “Unlike the grocery store, it’s been hit hard.”
“I think people are glad to come in, and just even get a cup of coffee,” said Patterson. “We’re open, and we’re happy to be open.”
Up the road, East 20 Pizza in Winthrop is busy juggling phone calls for to-go orders. Pizza is synonymous with take-out food, and while Inslee’s order has not necessarily been bad for business the pizzeria has been scrambling to get its take-out only operation up and running.
“We had to invent the take-out only business model for ourselves,” said owner Lindsay Evans. “We kind of just have to make it up as we go.”
Phone orders take longer than in-person service, noted Evans, who has been working to transition away from cash transactions, with an eye on limiting potential contamination by taking payment over the phone. That also helps to limit exposure for her and her employees, “When [customers] come for pick-up they can just knock on the window and we can hand them their pizza,” said Evans.
The new guidelines for restaurants to operate under during the coronavirus pandemic have been a bit of a moving target for many restaurant owners, as updates, changes, and extensions continue. Evans had to call the Washington State LCB to clarify some of the guidelines revolving around serving beer.
“If someone wants to buy a new growler we’ll fill it up with our tap beers, but we can’t take any container inside, we can only sell a new one,” said Evans. And drinking a beer on the East 20 Pizza patio while waiting for an order is also no longer allowed, due to concerns over social gathering and contamination.
While the pizza shop’s beer sales have taken a hit, pizza orders have stayed constant and the restaurant has been able to continue operating on its usual seven-days-a-week schedule. “Business has been steady enough that we’ve been able to avoid major layoffs to our staff. We actually are fine keeping the ball rolling right now,” said Evans.
However, looking forward, Evans suspects the summer’s tourism season will bring in less business than she usually expects, and the normal boost her business relies on from the influx of customers may not happen.
“I know this summer won’t be what I was expecting. We definitely need assistance. We’re doing fine now, but if we want to be here next year we’ll need some help,” said Evans, who has been working on applying for COVID-19 relief loans from the Small Business Administration.
While working to reformat her business during coronavirus, Evans, inspired by an idea from a friend, has turned some of her focus to the community, has launched a free pizza fund for Methow Valley residents who may be stuck at home during the coronavirus. East 20 Pizza is accepting donations by phone for the pizza fund, and in conjunction with Room One, providing pizzas to vulnerable or in-need residents of the valley.
As restaurant owners throughout the Methow work to keep their businesses afloat, innovation, adaptation, and community provide support and inspiration.
“We’re all hurting right now,” said Young at Old Schoolhouse Brewery. “I’m just grateful for the community to their support.”