Frustration and Loss: How COVID-19 Shutdowns Are Affecting Seattle-Area Cafés

As mandated closures attempt to flatten the curve in Washington state, “The entertainment and hospitality industry has definitely been thrown under the bus.”


Cover photo courtesy of Jill Killen

The last few weeks have taken a dramatic toll on Washington state cafés. Considered the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, the state has quickly escalated its measures to prevent transmission. On March 11, Governor Jay Inslee issued a ban on groups of 250 or more people, strongly encouraging social distancing and telecommuting. At that time, cafés and restaurants felt the loss of business as more people stayed home and took to social media, urging communities to continue supporting their local cafés.

All of that changed on March 16 when Inslee made another proclamation, this time ordering the shutdown of all dine-in restaurants, bars, cafés, gyms, and other public spaces for at least two weeks. In the temporary shutdown, café owners are urging their staff to file for unemployment while they scramble to figure out how to pay rent, bills, and employee sick time. 

With dine-in restaurant service banned for two weeks, many cafés have to close, or provide to-go-only products. Photo courtesy of Jill Killen.

Jill Killen owns two Seattle cafés, Cloud City Coffee and El Diablo Coffee Co.. and both are temporarily shuttered. “We’ve been in there cleaning out the walk-ins, and trying to donate the food where we could,” Jill says. “We let staff come in and just take coffee and food, then my store manager took some to a food bank. I still gotta go finish Diablo’s walk-in. We didn’t know it was going to happen so fast. We had a lot of food in the walk-in. We just gave away maybe a thousand dollars of food at each store.”

In Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, Resistencia Coffee is open for now, but everything is sold to-go. “The ban only allows for to-go orders. We are controlling the amount of people who are at the shop at any moment. It is less than 10 people at all times,” says owner Coté Soerens.

During the coronavirus crisis, Coté says the resilient South Park neighborhood has been mobilizing to help their community. After Washington schools were mandated to close, a neighborhood-led free community breakfast was hosted at Resistencia, which provided food to families who rely on school meals. They still have the breakfast program, Coté reports, but it is now being served in to-go containers.

Lashanna Williams makes community breakfast at Resistencia Coffee, now served to-go-only. Photo courtesy of Coté Soerens.

“Our neighbors have been incredibly supportive. Our regulars are definitely carrying us through. They have been incredibly helpful with tips. Some people are leaving $20 tips. It’s been encouraging to see,” Coté says.

Even with community support, it might not be enough if the shutdown continues past the end of the month. Coté attests that coming out of the slowest months of the year, and then closing for two weeks, is an intense financial strain. “Our profit margins are very small already. The cost of doing business in Seattle has increased significantly in the past five years. We don’t have much margin to play with. … We’re closing because the state decided to. I strongly feel the government should be doing more to support small businesses,” Coté says.

Resources for Seattle small businesses are sparse at this point. Jill says, “The City of Seattle had a grant, but it was only if you had five or fewer employees. The state of Washington is allowing us two months to hold off paying B&O taxes, but … I’m having to pay people sick time. I’m not gonna have that money. I’m applying for an SBA disaster relief loan.”

Considering that the only relief options for independent café owners are grants that are probably inapplicable for most shops, deferment of tax payments, and lower-interest loans, Coté says, “It’s really not enough.”

Despite business being down “by half,” Resistencia’s resilient community has been more supportive than ever. Photo courtesy of Coté Soerens.

With as many as 20 states enforcing some kind of COVID-19 temporary closure for restaurants, expect to see more independent cafés under stress. When asked what kind of advice she would give to others that might face a temporary shutdown, Jill says, “Shore up your finances. Make sure you have enough to pay your staff first, and pay other bills later. You’ve made a commitment to your staff; make sure you have enough money for them. And then start paring down your orders now, have a contingency plan of ordering the absolute minimum of everything you have … (communicate) really well with your staff about where you’re headed and where you’re going to be. Looking back, I wish we would have sent out a daily update, just to kind of ease their minds, but it was all happening so fast, it was such a whirlwind.”

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Mark Van Streefkerk
is Barista Magazine’s social media content developer and a frequent contributor. He is also a freelance writer, social media manager, and novelist based out of Seattle. If Mark isn’t writing, he’s probably biking to his favorite vegan restaurant. Find out more on his website.