What is it like to run a restaurant during a global pandemic? Let me start by saying maybe it's better if you have only just barely figured out how to run a restaurant during normal times. There is not much "used to" or "would/should/could" to fall back on when you've only begun. There's just the here and the now. Below is how we spent our here and now through all of last year.
B.C. (BEFORE CORONAVIRUS)
Lassi & Spice celebrated our first anniversary at the end of January 2020.
The giant cake and flowers look so innocently cute in retrospect. At the time it felt like "ok, now we have a handle on this. Maybe. Kinda."
For a brief period, it seemed like we did. February was our biggest sales month ever, where we took on several catering jobs while delighting in our café being packed (PACKED!) to the gills every evening after office hours. In hindsight, the crowds look troubling to full on terrifying, but at the time we did not know what was circulating in our midst.
And then came March. Amazon shut down travel, and then proceeded to close its offices. Our regular customer traffic ground to a screeching halt as our daily customers stopped commuting in. For the next few days we tried to power through it: we made smaller batches of chai and put our nervous energy into various deep cleaning projects. But it was nail biting and increasingly made no financial sense. As schools closed and statewide shutdowns loomed, I was faced with a dilemma. What was the best way for me to keep my employees safe and paid? Continuing to have them commute into work at a fragile business with a dwindling customer base seemed ludicrous. There were no masks. There was no hand sanitizer to be found. There was conflicting information on how the virus transmitted. And I could not guarantee I would be able to pay them for much longer. I opted to help them enroll in a temporary state unemployment program called SharedWork, and then I closed down.
Closing down a restaurant, even a small one, even temporarily, is not an easy or instantaneous task. There were suppliers to notify, signs to print, fridges to clean out, food to donate, equipment to carefully clean and shutdown. I did it all, in painful stages. At first, believing we'd shut for the original 3 week stay home order, I took the milk and produce to a food bank, but held onto cases of longer shelf life items like yogurt. And then it was back in to get the yogurt as the shutdown drug on. Each trip to the foodbank threw me into an emotional lurch. I was getting rid of stuff we used to hardly be able to keep in stock, that we'd clearly need just as soon as we reopened. But it was going to people who needed it. And it was these people I saw waiting in line to shop, more often than not with their kids, that tore me apart. Here I was with one of my kids, helping unload cases of donated goods, looking at the other parents and kids, knowing that, as the saying goes, "there but by the grace of God go I." This was the perspective I would carry with me for the remainder of the year.
During the 7 weeks we were closed down I stayed busy. In the absence of organized school for my kids, I made up a schedule and task managed them through it each day. It was a luxury to have that flexibility in the early days of virtual schooling, and I am thankful for that. With time in front of my computer, I applied for every grant, loan and government aid program I could find. And I worked to get the business ready to reopen, when the time came. Recognizing we would have to rely on delivering to our homebound customers, I set Lassi & Spice up on DoorDash, UberEats, Postmates, Caviar and GrubHub. I beefed up our own online order system. It was a process of seeing what I could throw at the wall that might stick. With the luxury of desk time, I rewrote our operations manual and reprinted all our recipes. And I stayed in constant contact with my employees. Of the 11 I employed, only 2 were ever able to qualify for state unemployment. For one reason or another, their applications were rejected or delayed far beyond a reasonable waiting period. And so I continued to pay those who had no other support throughout the entire time we were closed.
As the Spring moved on, we were fortunate to receive financial support that allowed me to pay staff, catch up on all my utilities bills and pay my suppliers. The first grant came from Amazon's neighborhood fund, and I will forever be grateful for Amazon stepping up quickly and decisively to support the small businesses that had relied on their in person workforce. I also qualified for a Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loan, which was engineered so that if I used the funds as directed for payroll, utility bills and rent, the loan would be forgiven. And eventually it was. I received an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) for the Small Business Administration. This is a pure loan that I will have to pay back in full, but the low interest rate is better than many other options. So by the end of April, I felt optimistic and supported. But I also realized that the clock was running out on my ability to pay my employees without having the café open. It was time to make a move!
Early May seemed as good a window as ever to get the business back open. The weather was turning for the better. I watched as other local cafes I admired reopened. It was a good sign. I now had gotten my hands on plenty of facemasks to offer staff and customers, and found locally produced hand sanitizer. The CDC had published guidelines for restaurants, and King County Public health had references and tools I could use. No one had all the answers but I felt more prepared to operate in the new normal. Thankfully my staff were ready to come back too. I started with a small group and a limited schedule, but slowly expanded our hours until the team reached the previous size. And then we even began to hire new people.
Reopening safely meant many changes to how we operate, and if you've been to visit us since May you have definitely experienced them. Our business is now 100% takeout and delivery. Our menus are posted in our windows so they can be perused from outside, and our front door has become an order and pick-up counter. The sidewalk outside our space is now the waiting area, and we appreciate (so much) that our loyal customers tolerate a wait in often cold, damp weather. Although indoor dining has been allowed off and on in Seattle, our space is tiny and we deliberately want to minimize contact and keep the fresh air flowing. Therefore, we will not allow customers back inside to dine until our staff is vaccinated. So for now, the décor I was so proud to show off during our first year is blocked off and hidden behind mountains of to-go containers, drink carriers and paper bags. Just like the smiles of our staff are now hidden behind their masks.
And speaking of my staff, they are troopers, finding humor and joy during these stressful times. Those who joined us pre-Covid are working in a very different environment than they signed up for. The warm greetings of our regular customers have been largely replaced by brief handoffs to stressed out delivery drivers. The team has adapted beautifully, without complaint, to orders coming through as constant dings from a DoorDash and UberEats tablets. They have helped refine a menu that packs and travels well, and adopted processes that keep us all safer. They have built relationships with our new walk-up regulars who work from home in the buildings surrounding us. And they have become close friends with each other. The pandemic is especially hard - mentally, emotionally and financially - on young adults. I am sensitive to this and we all take it one day at a time. Putting my staff first has been my priority since I made my first hire and it continues to be. Even during the most difficult financial time I have ever faced, my priority is giving my staff predictable hours and a living wage, the paid time off they deserve, health benefits if they need them and making sure they can commute safely. They pay me back many times over with their work ethic, fascinating perspectives on life and their loyalty. They have been a true bright spot of the pandemic.
Pav is Love, our program that feeds the homeless, has been the other highlight. During the weeks we were shutdown, I would come down to the café to check on things and the only souls I usually saw walking the deserted streets of South Lake Union were the homeless. I decided when we reopened we needed to do something - anything - to help our community. And thus was born "Pav is Love". Pav means bread roll in Hindi, and it's a popular component in many of our menu items (Vada Pav, Pav Bhaji). Understanding that bread is love - that giving people food is the most basic way to show care - was the simple idea for the program. I figured even if no customers came to see us, our staff could stay busy making food for the homeless who needed it most. And perhaps our customers might donate and help us cover some of the costs.
Fast forward to today, and we give out 10 to 20 meals a day to needy walk up customers. They can order anything off the menu at any time, just like any customer, but they don't have to pay. In addition to serving these walkups, Lassi & Spice has also become close partners with a nearby shelter, Immanuel Community Services, where we donate catered meals and supplies to their homeless guests. To support this work, I have chosen to let the company go into the red some months. Helping the most vulnerable in our community has felt more important than eking out a profit during this time. But the company's contribution is just a portion: so many generous customers have also opted to pay it forward. Many people have donated one time or give to us regularly. Others simply choose to add "Buy A Meal for a Homeless Person" to their order. Daily we receive these donations, which we joyfully convert into free meals handed out to anyone who asks. This wraparound feeling of community gets me out of bed in the morning.
We have also been proud to hold "Donation Days" throughout the year where we donate half our revenue to a nonprofit working in the local racial justice movement. To choose a donation partner, our staff nominate organizations and then vote to choose one. We then let our customers know they can support this organization through their purchases that day. So far we've donated to wonderful organizations like Black Lives Matter Seattle King-Co, Real Rent Duwamish and the Northwest Community Bail Fund. It's been another way to make an impact and increase the awareness of each organization's work within our customer base.
ONWARD TO 2021
What will 2021 bring us? We hope the opposite course of 2020, which started so strong and ended up so bleak. In contrast, I predict 2021 will start bleak and turn a corner toward a brighter, hopeful future. We have been tested this year (ba dum dum!) as if 2020 was a giant swab up the nostril of life. So far, we have emerged on the other side, a little teary eyed but still on our feet. One day at a time. We are so ready for you 2021!
And we are also ready to grow and take on new challenges. Our 2nd location - in the Tableau HQ in Wallingford - opens officially on Monday January 4th! With plenty of outdoor seating and a full kitchen, it is the stuff new dreams are made of. Come see us in this new year, in our new location, or swing by our original SLU location. We're on either side of beautiful Lake Union so you cannot go wrong. And we are smiling - behind our masks - waiting to wish you a very happy new year!
Lassi & Spice