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For Spokane area restaurants, COVID-19 presents unprecedented challenges, uncertainty

For Cindy Hallett, keeping Halletts Market & Cafe in Spokane Valley afloat during the coronavirus pandemic is requiring innovation and a “day-by-day” approach.

Last weekend, Hallett and husband, Tom, installed a plexiglass barrier around the cash register, created a hand-sanitizing station and affixed tape to the establishment’s floor that indicates 6 feet of social distancing space between customers.

Hallett also is providing takeout and curbside service for the cafe’s fresh deli food.

“It has been really hard to keep going, but we have done everything as far as social distancing recommendations,” she said, adding that more than 40 years of operating the business has built a loyal customer base. “It’s been a really wonderful outpouring of support.”

Spokane’s restaurant industry was booming prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Restaurant owners were filing building permits in the region on an almost weekly basis for everything from fast-food restaurants and coffee shops to locally owned dine-in eateries.

But the restaurant industry has been hit hard by COVID-19. Unemployment claims in the state of Washington for the week of March 15-21 soared to more than 133,000 in the wake of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order that temporarily shut down bars and restaurants. In the accommodations and food service sector, 41,300 workers filed new unemployment claims that week, more than 10 times the total filed a week prior.

At the time of the shutdown, more than 15,600 restaurants and bars operated in the state, and the industry employed more than 333,500 workers, according to a report by the National Restaurant Association.

“I have a wonderful staff. I had to lay off one person, but at this point, we are going to hang in there,” Hallett said. “The cafe is keeping me going right now.”

Maxwell House Restaurant co-owner Alex Springer restarted takeout orders Monday via a limited menu at the longstanding West Central establishment, following prior vendor delays for its popular broasted chicken.

Springer, who bought the restaurant in January with investor Arman Mohsenian, former Gonzaga University basketball player Casey Calvary, William Page, and restaurateur Ethan Higa, said statewide restrictions on restaurant and bar operations has “a pretty big impact.”

Before Inslee’s mandate ordering restaurants and bars to temporarily close, Maxwell House was not only retaining its regular customer base but gaining new patrons.

“We are holding on for dear life until it works itself out,” Springer said, adding that the restaurant expects to generate only 10% of the takeout orders it was filling prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, Springer is hopeful that when the statewide ban in lifted, diners will continue supporting local establishments.

Matt Goodwin, who owns and operates the Goodwin Group, a collection of six neighborhood bars and restaurants in the area, said sales have dropped 70% to 80% at his newest establishment, Brick West Brewing Co., since the ban went into effect.

Brick West began distributing its craft beer March 1, and because its product is not yet in grocery stores, it was dependent upon customers visiting the brewery.

“We are not getting that right now, but we are seeing tremendous support with people getting to-go orders,” Goodwin said, adding the brewery is planning to offer beer delivery service twice a week. “We appreciate the support from the community. Spokane is wonderful.”

Three of the Goodwin Group’s establishments, Backyard Public House, Remedy and Barnwood Social Kitchen & Tavern, also remain open for to-go orders.

Restaurants and food vendors that have traditionally done a large amount of takeout and delivery business are finding the current climate a little less challenging than their peers.

River City Pizza has been extremely busy at its two locations in Spokane Valley and Otis Orchards, said Jacqueline Barnard, who owns the restaurants with her husband, Phillip.

“All we do at both our locations is delivery and takeout,” she said, adding the restaurants have a takeout area, but no dining rooms. “This last weekend was a record weekend, especially at our Otis Orchards location.”

River City Pizza – in addition to providing delivery and pickup service – also offers take-and-bake pizzas.

“I am extremely thankful to be open and keep my employees working,” Barnard said, adding that her employees, some of whom are single parents, rely on working at the restaurant to put food on the table. “Gratitude has been my attitude lately.”