Pandemic causes thousands of WA restaurants to close, others desperate for relief

SPOKANE, Wash.– The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on small businesses. The restaurant industry has been especially hard hit. You’ll see proof of that in a recent study done by the Washington Hospitality Association.

The group represents more than 6,000 members of the hotel, restaurant and hospitality industry. In a press conference last week, CEO Anthony Anton said they believe one in four restaurants closed within the first six months of the pandemic. They know of at least 121 restaurant closures in Spokane County during that time. They fear that number is much higher and will continue to increase as regulations last into the new year.

Indoor dining is prohibited in Washington until at least early January, per Governor Jay Inslee’s orders.

Eateries still holding on have had to get creative to pay their bills. Kristi Heaton feels like one of the lucky ones because her restaurant, Mamma Mia’s, serves Italian food, which travels well for to-go meals. Still, she had to announce massive layoffs and rethink how to get her food into the hands of hungry customers around Spokane.

“Me and the girls sit around and we brainstorm. What will work? What is a good thing people can grab and go? We’ve come up with these family packs and date night packs and holiday packages,” Heaton said. “And it’s working.”

Their limited take-out menu features pasta ala carte with just a seven dollar price tag. Those larger meal options for families come with a lasagna you can bake at home, fresh rolls and salad.

Near downtown Spokane, Shawn O’Donnell’s American Grill and Irish Pub is relying on food to-go, too. The Spokane restaurant opened just three months before the pandemic. The locally-owned franchise has three other locations in western Washington.

Shawn O’Donnell, Sr. said he’s been leaning on his nearly four decades of experience in the industry to plan for the future.

“We’ve been doing it a long time. We’ve got great relationships with our landlords, vendors and lenders and everybody else. I was also in business during the ’08 meltdown and we learned a lot of lessons there that we’re using now,” O’Donnell said.

Family-style meals have been a hit for the holidays at Shawn O’Donnell’s American Grill and Irish Pub, too. O’Donnell said they’ll be offering take-and-bake options for Christmas. But these options are only a quick fix for finances.

The Washington Hospitality Association wants lawmakers to serve up a long-term solution at the upcoming legislative session.

“In 2020, it is estimated that our industry is going to lose 10 billion dollars in sales now that we know that will be closed the rest of the year,” Anton said. “The amount of relief needs to be as extreme as the amount of damage that has been occurring and has been put on this industry.”

Even with so much pandemic pain, O’Donnell said there’s still a lot to be grateful for.

“There have been a few occasions where I had to excuse myself, brought to tears by the support people have,” O’Donnell said. “Thank you so much and I’d ask them to keep it up.”

That support will ensure these businesses are still around when the pandemic isn’t.

“I keep saying 2021 is going to be a big year,” Heaton said.

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