Federal Way restaurants struggle to survive amid COVID-19 outbreak

“We’re hanging by a thread,” said East India Grill owner Kabal Gill.

Restaurant owner Kabal Gill invested $500,000 to start East India Grill 11 years ago.

Now, the award-winning restaurant is in danger of closing its doors permanently.

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, East India Grill made about $3,000 to $5,000 in sales a day. The buffet sits on a corner in Federal Way’s Gateway Center plaza and, on a regular day, sees a near steady stream of visitors.

Since Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the closure of restaurants and bars on March 15, and with uncertainty of the current global health crisis, customers are few and far between at many of Federal Way’s local restaurants, diners and coffee shops.

East India Grill has roughly 10% of its business left, Gill said. Dine-in is no longer an option, people are afraid to leave their houses and delivery sales have decreased.

“We’re hanging by a thread,” Gill said. Last week, the restaurant made barely $500 in one day. East India’s rent and utilities cost nearly $16,000 and Gill is worried how much longer his restaurant can stay afloat as income dwindles.

Most employees were temporarily laid off last week, and a bare-bones staff remains — including the chefs whom Gill himself has trained for 10 years.

“I cannot lose them,” he said. “If I lose them, I lose the restaurant.”

For health purposes, Gill has his staff members drink ginger water daily and also encourages them to add turmeric, garlic, cinnamon and nutmeg into their diets to support their immune systems. In the restaurant, staff members adhere to strict social distancing standards, wear personal protective gear, and sanitize menus and commonly touched areas consistently throughout the day.

“I’m doing my best, but we need the community’s help now to survive,” Gill said. “We need help.”

East India Grill (31845 Gateway Center Blvd. S. in Federal Way) remains available for take-out orders by phone at 253-529-9292.

Federal Way’s living room

Since 1997, Poverty Bay Cafe and Coffee Company has been Federal Way’s living room, said owner Dan Olmstead.

The cafe at 1108 S. 322nd Place in Federal Way is temporarily closed as the business promotes social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, its wholesale business in Auburn is open and thriving.

Poverty Bay roasts coffee at a facility in Auburn, while also operating a retail outlet and community outreach space at the Federal Way location.

“Business was definitely solid and predictable before the closure,” Olmstead said. “We’ve been doing it for a long time so we have a really good loyal following.”

Olmstead said he didn’t want to take that option of connection away from people, or take away jobs from his 13-member staff, especially those who work full time.

But, “my gut told me that this was dangerous,” he said of the pandemic. “This was different than any of us have ever seen or been through.”

The wholesale business in Auburn has three large clients and “that’s actually going really well because people are panic buying and that includes everything — including coffee. That part is solid right now.”

The cafe’s operations remained nearly normal for most of March, with business dropping about 20% in the last two weeks when the situation began to rapidly evolve.

“As a manager you can trim hours here and there and send people home early, but it wasn’t the type of dropoff I was seeing in Seattle and places like that.”

Olmstead said he saw things coming well before they came. The cafe has many older clients, he said, which was stressful because he didn’t want to become part of the problem.

“It’s difficult because it’s kind of invisible as a lot of people have called the virus. You hope you’re doing everything right, but you don’t know.”

He said they finally made the hard decision to close their doors at their Federal Way location until further notice.

Olmstead said he can relate to his company’s older clients because he is vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus as well.

“I’m 62 and I have asthma. I don’t want to pretend I know what to do. It has a huge impact no matter what you do.”

He had to balance the need for the community to have a community gathering space, with the need to keep his customers safe.

Poverty Bay sells coffee online at www.povertybay.com. Asensio Coffee in Twin Lakes sells coffee that is roasted by Poverty Bay and Asensio remains open for take-out and coffee.

When Poverty Bay recently closed its doors, employees were given a lot of the perishable food so it wouldn’t go to waste. They also donated a lot of food to the Federal Way Senior Center’s Food Bank in Auburn.

“We’re so grateful for all the support. It’s a world-shaking event that none of us were prepared for or could have been prepared for,” Olmstead said. “But we’ll get through this.”

Tall order for two

B&R Espresso owners Russhele Arreola and Brian Todd are operating as a two-person team after having to lay off five employees of the coffee shop.

The pandemic has limited the local business to only offer drive-through and take-out services.

“Not knowing what is coming or even how long we can sustain at this rate, that’s probably the most challenging thing,” Todd said, also noting the difficulty in having to let go of their employees for the time being.

B&R Espresso Bar is located at 32901 1st Ave. S. in Federal Way.

No hibernation for Black Bear Diner

When it comes to high-touch areas in a restaurant, door handles and tabletops are the first places that come to mind.

But the outbreak of the coronavirus forces you to think of what else needs to be cleaned. Condiment bottles. Salt and pepper shakers. The spot on the top of the chair you grab when pulling out your seat.

This pandemic could be a pivotal change in the service industry, said Danny Banwait, owner of Federal Way’s Black Bear Diner and three other locations in Washington.

The diner has seen about a 97% drop in business this month, and a majority of employees — 42 at each of the four locations — have been temporarily laid off.

“Everyone’s in the unknown,” said Banwait, who has owned Federal Way’s diner since 2011. “I’ve never been through anything this extreme.”

The restaurant is being cleaned on an hourly basis during the statewide closure, and Banwait is connecting daily with his employees on an internal company app to keep spirits positive and make sure everyone is OK.

Black Bear Diner is offering carry-out meals via phone at 253-945-8332 and for delivery on most food service delivery apps such as UberEats, DoorDash and Postmates.

“It’s sad going into the diners seeing nobody in them, no employees,” he said. “It doesn’t feel right.”

‘It’s closed for now’

For some local businesses, there are no ways to offer services during the state’s closure period.

Resident Theresa Lee owns the Kum Kang San BBQ Grill Buffet on Pacific Highway in Federal Way. Her son, Chris Lee, also works at the restaurant, which opened in 2007. Lee said business before the pandemic had been booming.

“On weekends, we’d have a full house constantly with people coming in and out,” he said. “Then after the news started to come out, it started to slow down. People started to avoid going outside.”

When their restaurant, located at 31656 Pacific Highway South in Federal Way, shuttered earlier this month, most of the perishable food was donated to their local church.

Lee said because their business is a buffet, they do not offer delivery or takeout.

“It didn’t make any sense for us to make any adjustments to add takeout or delivery. So it’s closed for now,” he said. “It’s been difficult. We’re stuck at home now trying to figure out what to do.”

He said the uncertainty about what’s going to happen next is one of the most difficult things for them. His mother also had to lay off about 20 employees.

“It’s really hard to prepare for emergencies, but then preparing for a pandemic is something that, no matter how much you really prepare, you never know what’s really going to go down. It’s a new experience in terms of how to grasp that.”

While Lee and his mother hope to reopen the business in the future, he said that right now, the most important thing for anyone to do is take care of themselves and their loved ones.

“Everyone’s health is the most important thing,” he said. “I’d rather we just get through this pandemic than worry about any business concerns.”


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