No one has escaped the impact of the pandemic — individuals, families, schools or businesses small and large. But some restaurants and bars have been hit especially hard, including longtime Key Peninsula haunts and hangouts that have supported the community, some with with donations and fundraisers, for years.
Some of those businesses were willing to share their stories with the KP News.
The small, busy restaurant next door to Bridgeway Market in Purdy has about a dozen tables and is popular for takeout. Owners Lucas and Orachorn Schultz opened in May 2019 and thrived beyond their expectations until COVID-19 hit.
With Peninsula High School essentially closed and many other people working from home, the once-brisk lunch trade all but disappeared.
Orachorn said business has been steady overall, and they received assistance from the Payroll Protection Program.
“Right now, we are doing OK, but we really want things to get back to normal. We were doing so good,” she said. Customers have been supportive and kind. “We’ve had new people try us out too, so that’s good.”
Jimmy’s was known for its nightly specials, and the bar and pool tables were busy. The owner, Jim Haskins, planned to turn the business over to his son Richard but that changed when the pandemic hit. He decided to stay until the business is safe.
“My son is awesome,” Haskins said. “He is a computer whiz and worked on the menu, put up signs and moved to takeout.” He credits loyal customers and an understanding landlord with survival, along with COVID-19 relief from the Payroll Protection Program and Pierce County. He lost most of his bartenders but was able to keep his cooks. Haskins is happy to be open at 25% capacity, and plans to bring back one of the pool tables. “I am a fighter. I think we’ll come through it, unless they completely shut us down again,” he said.
Just down the road from Jimmy’s, Seabeck Pizza is one of five locations in the region. “It’s been really, really busy since the pandemic hit,” employee Shannon Shopshire said. Seabeck has some indoor seating, but most of their business is takeout and Shopshire said that with the pandemic they have added delivery service.
Domino’s at Lake Kathryn Village saw an increase in business as the pandemic hit, according to General Manager Jenna Smith. She thinks so many people staying at home led to the growth. They have had to make some adjustments, including contactless delivery, and have followed company guidelines about sanitary measures as well as masking and social distancing of employees to the extent possible.
Laura Scheel and husband Russ opened Hot Buns and Subs inside Wauna Liquor in January. The Scheels own Purdy Liquor and bought the Wauna building two years ago, decided to incorporate the restaurant space at the south end of the building, and spent the next six months remodeling.
“We had a good customer base from the store and people complained that there weren’t enough food choices in the area,” Scheel said. They offer takeout and will have outdoor seating available when the weather improves. Scheel said they were “slammed” the first week and since then business has settled into a steady flow. “I can’t complain.”
Owners Sarah and Bryant Anderson opened their doors in Key Center Jan. 4. They had planned to open in the spring of 2020, but were delayed by permitting issues. Sarah Anderson said opening mid-pandemic made things easier in some ways. “We knew the rules going in and could build in compliance with things like the plexiglass (counter barriers),” she said.
The café offers takeout for breakfast and lunch and has indoor seating for 15, but they don’t plan to seat customers until they can open at capacity. “We could seat three people or we can have space for people to wait for their orders inside,” Anderson said. They have had some quiet moments since opening, but business has been “beyond our wildest expectations,” she said.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Pablo de la Cruz. He and his wife, Cathy, and his two brothers and sister, own the restaurant.
With the pandemic restrictions on indoor dining, El Sombrero promoted takeout options, but the number of customers plummeted. Restaurants have a much larger margin of profit with alcohol sales than with food, and closing the El Sombrero bar meant more loss of income. The de la Cruzes received funding from the Payroll Protection Program, which allowed them to retain employees at first, but even when they were allowed to reopen at one-quarter capacity they were forced to let people go and cut restaurant hours.
The support of the community has meant much to the family. “We are overwhelmed by the generosity; we look forward to the time when we will once again be able to give back,” Cathy said. But the challenges continue. Overhead costs continue and it is even difficult to find takeout containers. Staff remain on standby, hoping their jobs return.
“We’ve done better than we ever have,” said Stephanie Brooks, the owner-operator of Gnosh, the blue takeout food truck that operates outside Capitol Lumber in Key Center. “The first three months were crazy. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many new customers we got.”
While her business model is working well, Brooks said it kills her at night to drive past dark restaurants. The restaurant business has notoriously low margins, “so when something goes wrong, and that percentage slips into the negative, there’s nothing you can do,” she said.
“I know there are some others doing well too. There are enough customers out here for all of us to get business, it’s good that it’s being spread around.”
Owner Greg Hessler received assistance through the Payroll Protection Program in the early months of the pandemic when everything shut down. Navigating the program was initially confusing for everyone, including the banks, but he said the money helped keep his doors open and staff employed.
“Thankfully we had the model set up and we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel,” Hessler said. While the extra PPE increased expenses, his goal was to eliminate fear and ensure customers felt safe with staff modeling best practices.
“It took a while before people began to recognize that they could go out while remaining safe,” he said.
Hessler said the value of being open for customers goes far beyond pizza. Friendly service and the normalcy of conversation are as nourishing in these times as food. “Our customers send cards and letters, thanking us for being here on the front lines.”
Don Swensen, owner of Blend in Key Center,said his business is down about 40% since mandated restrictions went into effect.
“First and foremost, our customers have been incredibly loyal and supportive,” he said.
Restaurants with liquor licenses operate under different rules than bars. “Blend is considered as just a bar. We always seem to be the redheaded stepchild, we’re the last one they think about trying to fix,” Swensen said.
Because a good portion of his business is selling bottles to go, that part has been steady and even increased a bit. The other thing that helps is having minimal staff, just Swensen and his daughter. “I pay her to be there, but don’t pay myself and that’s allowed us to be able to pay the bills and keep the doors open.”
Swensen said Blend has not taken any money through the Payroll Protection Program. “The free stuff we weren’t qualified for anyway.” And while eligible for the payroll lending program, he decided they weren’t in a position to take a loan.
“I don’t think we’re going to be done with this thing until the end of 2021. I’m looking for a business model that provides the wants of our customers and to keep us moving forward.”
Swensen said they’ll be looking at doing outside music again as soon as it’s allowed. Friends have offered to help repair the tent over the outdoor seating area and build some gas-powered fire pits for heat.
Off the beaten track, a sandwich board sign at the entrance of Volunteer Park continues to draw a solid lunch crowd, but staying open for the dinner hours during COVID-19 doesn’t pencil out.
“It was too hard at only 25% to 50% (indoor) capacity and have to tell people to wear a mask, take their phone number and record what time they were here, that was ridiculous,” said co-owner Blaine Kester. In the end, he and co-owner Rachel Velez decided the best option was to operate takeout only.
Velez credited Key Pen Parks for being a wonderful landlord. With nothing going on at the park, Snack Shack business has shrunk. Gone is the thousand-strong Clean and Sober Group that brought them their biggest day ever. Gone is the three-day annual Russian campout event.
It’s the loyalty of their customers that help keep them going. “It’s a good feeling to know people really care about us,” Velez said. “We can’t wait to get back to normal so people can sit down inside and listen to that ’50s music, read the paper, and enjoy a good meal.”
It’s a good thing Ricardo Sahagun has a sense of humor.
“Lulu’s closed in February and COVID hit in March,” said Sahagun, who, along with his cousin Edgar Anaya, purchased Lulu’s Homeport Restaurant and Lounge in Home in early 2020. The original plan called for a complete remodel and reopening as Two Margaritas within six months.
Shortly after they filed for business and liquor licenses, the state stopped processing applications.
In the downtime, remodeling progressed at a slower pace than planned, but things are getting done.
“The building was in really rough shape,” Sahagun said. “We took everything down to studs in the kitchen and installed new wiring –– another hit that we weren’t expecting –– it just kept on getting better and better,” Sahagun said, laughing.
The state is processing licensing applications again, but a backlog remains. Meanwhile, all the new furniture ordered from Mexico to outfit the remodeled building can’t get into the U.S. because the border is closed. “Just another problem we’ve had to contend with,” he said.
But Sahagun looks on the bright side: “Lulu (Smith) and the community have been so supportive. We’ve been blessed with positive feedback and that makes us feel good.”
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