REST

Kagen Cox, owner of Kagen Coffee & Crepes, stands inside his empty cafe at the Uptown Shopping Center in Richland,. He’s temporarily closed his business until the latest round of state-mandated indoor dining restrictions are lifted in early January.

The latest round of restaurant restrictions have proven too much for one small Richland business.

Kagen Coffee & Crepes in the Uptown Shopping Center is closing its doors — at least for now. Owner Kagen Cox said they will reevaluate next month.

“We don’t have the ability or resources for big tent dining,” Cox told the Herald.

“Because we are a destination location, our sales are down nearly 80 percent, but our food costs — food also being disposables and to go containers — have tripled,” he said.

He’s not alone in the struggle.

In Benton and Franklin counties, 40 restaurants have permanently closed since March, according to the Washington Hospitality Association.

And statewide, 2,500 restaurants have shut their doors, said the association, and it fears more will go out of business under the newest restrictions banning indoor dining until Jan. 4 to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The National Restaurant Association also reported earlier this month that 10,000 restaurants across the country have closed permanently or long term.

The state association couldn’t provide the names of the Tri-Cities restaurants — 33 in Benton County and seven in Franklin County — that closed.

However, at least a few of the known closures confirmed by the Herald include Bamboo Gardens on Grandridge Boulevard and the Indian Express on Gage Boulevard, where Masala Indian Express has moved in.

“This announcement (of the restriction extension) is disappointing. I’m beyond frustrated,” Anthony Anton, CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, said during a recent press briefing.

He said the extension of the restrictions means thousands of restaurant owners and many more employees will not be working during the holidays. He noted 90 percent of the closures in the last six months were independent restaurants and cafes.

And restaurant industry leaders argues that new COVID cases are not because of indoor seating.

“When you track back, it’s not coming from restaurants,” Anton said.

Cox told the Herald that not only was he not making money but he was losing money every day the cafe was open. He said his business went $9,000 in the hole over the previous three weeks.

Kagen Crepes also has an outlet at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory campus in north Richland that’s been closed since March. He said his employees are like family and has been trying to keep them all on the payroll even when the sales didn’t support it.

“People need to understand that because the community has been kind enough to support us, is why we our here,” Cox said. “Our main business model is connecting people, and we haven’t been able to do that.”

Even though they will temporarily be closing, Cox still will keep the internet on and available for anyone who wants to sit at the tables outside the cafe.

“I have the best people working for me,” he said. “What we are doing right now is taking time to be healthy. I told them to take time with families over the holiday season, and we will reassess in January.”

Other Tri-Cities restaurants are trying to make a go of it despite the challenges.

At Boiada Brazilian Grill in Kennewick, co-owner Josiane Ballin says she wants to maintain a positive attitude and isn’t even thinking about closing permanently because she and her team don’t want that to happen.

“People are very resilient,” Ballin said. “We will not give up and keep going and do the best we can.”

Ballin said in addition to takeout, they made an investment in renovating their outdoor seating to emulate what she describes as a sunken garden.

“We invested in a way that even though it’s colder ... we make sure customers are welcome, safe and warm,” she said.

The restaurant that opened in 2019 added four propane fire pits and four heaters as a way to keep their outdoor space inviting and get customers to keep coming back.

She says they’ve been able to keep all the employees on the payroll at least for a limited number of hours. Ballin says she wants to keep her employees long term and develops schedules that divide hours for everyone. But her own business isn’t her biggest concern, though — the community is.

“Anybody who dines out or orders with any restaurant — that is really what will keep us all going through the troubled waters,” she said.

Ballin emphasized that any purchase at it any restaurant not only helps the owners and employees, but also the vendors and suppliers.

“I think the main purpose is that the more (customers) support those of us who are compliant (with regulations), the better because it keeps us going and keeps everyone going,” she said.

Restaurant relief

Targeted relief efforts for the hospitality industry have stalled so far in Congress, with the House passing the Restaurants Act, a $120 billion package that would send money to independent restaurants, catering companies and related businesses.

A competing Senate measure includes larger chains, which already drew ire during the initial roll-out of the Paycheck Protection Program last spring.

In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee addressed this gap by adding an additional $50 million of relief to be directed to businesses most impacted by these current restrictions, including restaurants, bowling alleys and fitness centers. He also said the state was prepared to step up should Congress not act before pandemic unemployment expires Dec. 26.

“We will not allow people to fall off that cliff in the state of Washington if Congress does not act,” Inslee said.

Though restaurant association’s Anton said the additional funding is “a good start,” the state already has received about 16,000 applications for the $50 million announced last month.

Some relief has been felt locally.

Between the Franklin and Benton county commissions, $6.5 million was designation for the CARES Act Community Support Grant Program. The program provided local businesses grant assistance with no repayments required.

Locally owned

One grant recipient is Lee’s Tahitian Restaurant and Bar.

Ming and Fem Li have owned the mainstay in the Uptown Shopping Center on George Washington Way in Richland for more than 20 years — although Lee’s Tahitian was around for more than a decade before that.

They also opened a second location on Lewis Street in Pasco in 2011 in a building they already owned that housed previous restaurants.

“I’m lucky that I own the building. If I had to pay rent, I would go bankrupt,” Li told the Herald.

He says that his restaurants have been surviving. He joked though that the companies that he has bought equipment from to create an outdoor space such as heaters have made more money than they have.

“We aren’t a McDonald’s. We aren’t a Burger King,” he said. “We don’t make money on takeout.”

Andrew Chilton, the owner of Magill’s Restaurant and Catering in Pasco agrees.

“We’re making food that should be eaten in the restaurant for the most part,” Chilton said. “That also effects people too — as far as them keeping up with the takeout.”

Chilton said early in the shutdowns in March the restaurant saw a lot of deliveries and takeout, but it has slowed significantly. He speculated the reduction perhaps partly may be because of COVID burnout and people getting tired of takeout dining.

“This most recent closure has hurt us more than the last one did,” he said.

Unlike other restaurants, Magills has not yet created outside seating for the winter season.

While Chilton said they used their patio throughout the spring and summer, the cost of heaters and making an outside space appealing was too high — although they may reconsider if the closures drag on.

Magill’s also has mostly kept the menu it created when it opened 13 years ago instead of changing it to adapt to takeout.

“We didn’t think it would be the best route,” Chilton said. “You risk pushing away your longtime customers who have been coming to us to get some of the items we’ve had nearly the whole time.”

Despite that, even if profits have dipped dramatically, neither restaurant is at current risk of going out of business both owners say.

While neither have had significant layoffs, they’ve had to cut hours.

“I’m trying to keep them at work,” Li said. “I may not make money, but I hope they are.”

Li said he worries his customers will stay home more as the weather gets colder.

“I have a lot of loyal customers, but it’s getting cold,” he said. “But if I close, I’m still a survivor.”