Pop-ups, parklets, pivots, devastating closures, hopeful openings, virtual events, social media madness, questionable management, new regulations, failed regulations, proposed regulations—San Francisco’s food industry has gone through many unprecedented challenges and changes over the past year (to say the least).
While we’ve got plenty on our plates to navigate, we were curious to step outside of our own little Bay Area bubble to see what the rest of the country’s food landscape looks like coming out of 2020—and where it’s all predicted to go. We wondered: what have restrictions done to restaurants in New York and Seattle? How has the street food scene evolved in Miami? Have different trends emerged in Los Angeles and Austin—or does it all resemble much of our own story?
To find out we asked the people who are in the middle of the madness—food writers, journalists, influencers, and restaurant workers in these cities. Some of their answers confirmed what we already knew or suspected, while others surprised us. Overall, we deducted, each city certainly experienced its own unique flavor of pandemic pandemonium.
Through a series of interviews over the next week, we’ll reveal what we have in common, what we’ve done well, what we could’ve done better, and what we could learn from our fellow food cities—starting with Seattle.
Stephanie Forrer, a Seattle-based writer, photographer, and social media consultant, gave us the scoop on what’s happening in the food scene in Seattle.
What’s your story, Steph?
I’ve been in the food business forever. Currently, I’m a freelance social media consultant, as well as a food photographer and recipe developer. Before Covid, I worked with between 6 and 10 restaurants, but most of them closed or slashed their marketing budget last year. So now I’m working with two restaurants based out of Seattle, including Nana’s Green Tea and Wild Ginger. There’s also a couple in Walla Walla, where we recently moved.
Give it to us straight: What’s the current mood within the food industry in your town?
I wish that I had more positive things to say, but it’s really hurting right now. Everything in downtown Seattle is boarded up and graffitied on. Of course, there have been glimmers of hope and some great pivots. We’ve even seen some restaurants expand, and some have been able to use this climate to their economic success. But overall, it has been pretty soul-crushing.
Most of my friends and even my boyfriend are in the restaurant industry. He was temporarily let go as a server at Sushi Kashiba, which is in downtown Seattle in Pike Place, one of the most heavily affected areas. They have just reopened and are doing limited takeout. So, I guess you could say I’ve been affected from every angle!
That does sound rough. What’s the outlook for you and others in the industry?
There are rays of hope and success stories. For instance, in West Seattle and neighborhoods like Ballard, street dining has been way more successful.
The return of hyper-local dining seems to be the trend cropping up everywhere. Would you agree?
Absolutely, and it extends beyond the restaurant industry. We were recently in Skagit Valley, which is a rich agricultural region of the state, to shop at roadside farm stands, and there were dozens of people in line when we pulled up in the middle of nowhere. I was talking to the owner and she said that sales have skyrocketed since the pandemic since people don’t want to go to a grocery store and feel better shopping directly from the source. So, there are definitely some silver linings there.
How has weather affected outdooring dining in Seattle?
It doesn’t help, but these yurt things are getting super popular. It begs the question for some people if it’s really better than eating inside though. Many big touristy restaurants by the water decided to close up shop for the winter and reopen in the Spring. It just doesn’t make economic sense otherwise.
A lot of my favorite restaurants couldn’t make it work at all and just closed permanently. A lot of landlords wouldn’t give tenants assistance or breaks, so they had to go. The saddest closings for us included Lecosho—an industry favorite—and Adana in Capitol Hill. They were in prime locations before Covid. Now “prime” is neighborhoods.
Are there any restaurants or food vendors that are thriving right now?
Overall, I’d say the thriving businesses are the ones that were just more creative than others or just more well-positioned to make it work within the restrictions.
Jack’s BBQ is one that’s killing it—they just opened a new location this year. He’s from Texas and the most incredible guy. His food is brisket tacos. I think they got really popular because their food was already really good to-go, so they were in a position that was perfect to pivot to for takeout. They were also the first people to embrace the emergency food relief movement and fed a ton of frontline workers. Their social media is great, as well.
Then there’s Canlis, one of the most famous restaurants in Washington state, which got really creative during the pandemic. They pivoted their multi-generational, family-owned fine dining restaurants into takeout burgers right after Covid hit and started. Then, every Friday, they would live stream bingo night or another experience, and you’d be hanging out virtually with Brian, who had a martini in hand. They had a fan base and a voice, but ultimately they knew what to do with it.
Others have pivoted to doing things like meal kits sold at grocery stores.
How would you describe the street food scene?
You know, we don’t have the obsession with food trucks like San Francisco or Portland. I, myself, am more of a sit-down restaurant kind of person. Of course, there are few popular food trucks here, and some have opened brick and mortar locations. But we don’t have big food truck pods all over town. If you are into one, you really have to keep up with their social media to see where they’re going to be.
Are there any notable food trucks worth checking out while we’re in the area?
One that’s really popular is Where Are You Matt from Matt Lewis. He’s from New Orleans and has been doing a lot of really cool things since Covid. He was working with Sound Excursions, which was doing big events and pivoted to online cooking experiences. In these classes, he would teach you how to do things like egg benedict on livestream, and now Matt is the host who interviews different chefs.
Stacks Burgers is another one that’s worth checking out. It was very difficult, even pre-Covid, to find spots to park your food truck, and last year they ended up getting a spot in front of Starbucks headquarters. I don’t know if regulators are more forgiving now because of Covid, or if the business owners are just saying “f’it” and putting tables outside without permits. But Stacks took that leap, and I salute them because Seattle has not done a good job of getting on the outdoor dining thing.
How has the city of Seattle responded to the restaurant industry during Covid?
Not well. The city didn’t block off streets for people to do outdoor dining until September of last year, and it was like, “Dude! You missed it!” I feel like the city of Seattle really failed the restaurant community.
What do you anticipate as things open back up?
I think Seattle has been about the hardest hit of any place. It was hit first and hit hard. We’re essentially a big tourist destination, and the industry has really suffered because of it. But I think by the Fall the hospitality industry will have a big boom everywhere, as many people will have the vaccine.
I also think it will have leveled the amount of restaurants in Seattle, and I don’t think that’ll come back. The scene here was really oversaturated. I remember reading an article in 2018 once that said, “Here are 40 restaurant openings you need to know about THIS MONTH!” It wasn’t even all of them–just the ones “you need to know about!” And it just felt like you couldn’t keep up with the amount of new things. So, for the ones that survive, people will be showing up. Here people are hungry for that community and that experience.
What are your friends in the hospitality industry doing until that happens?
A lot are on unemployment benefits. Some have pivoted and done some cool things. I have some friends that have taken to social media to share recipes and food adventures. Some are doing pop-ups. One friend is a cheesemonger who’s doing handsewn masks with cheese platters and selling them–stuff like that.
I’m still in a bunch of restaurant and bar support groups that help with ideas, opportunities and guidance through the unemployment payment process.
Where are these support groups?
Facebook, mainly. One was started by Jill Gallagher originally to get people to go to restaurants and order food. Now it has more than 20,000 members and resources for people looking for jobs, or asking questions about things like unemployment or outdoor heating. People brainstorm ideas for how to support each other, like buying gift cards. It’s really helpful and sweet. So, there’s that.
Well, there’s a silver lining. Any other hopeful thoughts to end on?
Yes, there are a lot of silver linings like I mentioned. And I really think this summer is going to kick things into high gear–if not in downtown certainly in the areas surrounding Seattle. There’s hope.
You can follow Stephanie’s writing and food adventures at www.eatdrinktravelyall.com.
Interested in learning more about our thoughts on the current food industry? Checkout our new Medium channel.
By: Renee Frojo