Take-Out and Gift Cards: Seattle Rushes to Help Small Businesses

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(Bloomberg) -- Dan Cassuto, a former television reporter, had a flash: Small retailers and restaurants in his Seattle neighborhood were seeing sales plummet amid one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. Why not do something for the places that were still open? Why not make a promotional video?

Within a day, his post in a West Seattle Facebook group had dozens of supportive comments. So, on Thursday evening, he went out with a camera and his yellow lab, Duke, to start filming.

Take-Out and Gift Cards: Seattle Rushes to Help Small Businesses

“I don’t want to see any of my favorite restaurants go out of business because of this,” said Cassuto, who runs a wedding phtography and video-production company. “Like anybody who relies on customers, we’re all concerned and watching what’s going to happen.”

Seattle takes buying local seriously. Taprooms at the scores of microbreweries are full on weekends, and nobody would drink a Bud. (They might, however, drink a similarly affordable Ranier, a brand whose logo features the dominating local mountain.) It’s a place where some people are so aggressive about supporting neighborhood coffee joints that they won’t even set foot in a Starbucks, the hometown giant.

Now, the coronavirus is providing a dramatic opportunity to show the love. Schools are shut for weeks, many are working from home and there’s lots and lots of social distancing. Last week, Seattle restaurants were already reporting a 40% drop in business, according to the city’s Office of Economic Development. Hotel occupancy was 30%, compared with above 70% normally.

It’s the kind of profound economic shock that could be replicated from New York to Los Angeles as officials take drastic steps to limit the virus. With the average small business having less than a month of cash in reserve, Seattle has already rolled out a raft of measures to help, including a deferral of taxes and relief on utility bills. Amazon.com Inc. is subsidizing rents for tenants in its buildings and giving cash grants to small businesses around its urban campus.

Still, plenty of normal people want to do their bit. There are earnest calls on social media to support specific businesses or buy gift cards that won’t be redeemed for months.

800 Jobs Cut

At Intentionalist, a two-year-old website started in Seattle that helps connect people with minority- and woman-owned businesses, traffic has risen five-fold in the past week, said founder Laura Clise. Clise has also helped organize lunches to support Asian restaurants, which were among the earliest and hardest hit. She’s been eating plenty of take-out.

“In the past week, I’ve had a lot of dumplings,” she said.

Take-Out and Gift Cards: Seattle Rushes to Help Small Businesses

Yet there are clear signs that it won’t be enough. Businesses downtown and around Amazon’s campus have borne the brunt as fewer people commute into work. Tom Douglas, one of the city’s most established chefs, shocked diners when he announced he’d close all but one of his 13 restaurants downtown for at least eight weeks, starting Sunday, putting about 800 workers out of jobs.

Behind the counter of Chases, a florist on the ground floor of a downtown office tower, Tino Umali said only three customers had been in since the shop opened six hours earlier on Thursday. No one came Monday or Tuesday.

He then rattled off previous crises the business had survived: the dot-com bust, the 2001 Nisqually earthquake and the 2008 financial crisis, which took down Washington Mutual, the thrift that used to have its headquarters in the building.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Umali said. “And it’s never been this quiet.”

‘Killer Tacos’

In a city where rising rents were already making it tough for restaurants and independent shops to thrive, the virus could just speed up a move toward chain-store consolidation and more online shopping.

“Instead of over a decade, you’re going to have it all happen in two weeks,” said Justin Carder, the publisher of CapitolHillSeattle.com, a local blog.

At Loxicha, an Oaxacan food stand in North Seattle, patrons were trying to eat their way through the crisis after a neighboring business owner posted on Instagram urging people to go there.

Rowen Tych was one of several people who stopped by to grab lunch Thursday. He said it wasn’t much of a hardship. “They make killer tacos,” he said.

Francisco Cortez, Loxicha’s owner, said business had dropped from about 100 customers a day to 80. With the schools shutting for six weeks, though, he worried that business might fall off a cliff. Many of his customers came from the elementary school across the street.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s probably found in Seattle’s residential neighborhoods, where coffee shops and markets have been doing brisk business.

Weekday sales have doubled at City Cellars Fine Wines in Wallingford, a neighborhood about 3 miles from downtown full of quaint craftsman homes, said Michael Herdon, the owner.

Then again, he added, looking around his empty store Thursday, “it could all just stop.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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