The High Price of Seattle's Food Space
Place is both the greatest strength and the biggest downfall of the city's food and beverage scene.
This used to be the lunch rush at Pike Place Market, and the bustling scene has given way to a terrifying calm. The typical throngs of tourists crushing your toes on a mad dash for the original Starbucks have slowed to a crawl. Lacking an audience for their pescetarian aerial act, the fishmongers stand idly by, hands jammed deep in the pockets of their rubber coveralls. Some days are busier than others, but today is quiet, and as I zip my jacket further underneath my masked chin against the wind whipping up from the salty Sound, I find the sense of ennui drearily, familiarly palpable.
Of course, there are still local shoppers, and even out-of-town visitors, and all is not yet lost. But this is normally the busiest place in town, and it’s in trouble—a plight common to all institutions that revolve around food and beverage and the gathering of people in shared space.
The Market has been among my favorite places ever since I was young. So vibrant and alive, enticing wanderers from across the world and all walks of life with the wares that make life worth living: fresh, locally grown produce; handcrafted cheese and yogurt; fresh-baked breads and pastries; wild-caught fish from the very waters that lap against these shores; wine from vineyards mere miles away and beer and spirits produced on-site. While business has slowly ticked up since being ravaged by the virus back in March, the days are getting darker, the weather colder and wetter, and I fear for the future of this vital gathering place, as prime marketfront stalls sit empty and some of the city’s most iconic eateries are reduced to gaping maws.
The boarded-up bar and restaurant is among the most tangible iconography of the pandemic. Here in Seattle’s downtown core, with the towering skyscrapers of tech giants eerily abandoned and the cruise ships that fueled the tourist trade dry-docked, many independent food businesses have temporarily or permanently closed. As Washington state enters another phase of modified lockdown, just in time for the holidays, I wonder how long we can go on this way. Humans are resilient, but the systems we build are fragile things, indeed.
The concept of space itself has played a central role in the current crisis. We shelter in place, stay six feet apart, and debate over outdoor dining. Gatherings with others in concert halls, theaters, and spiritual centers, bellying up to a dark bar, or sharing an intimate dinner next to the heat of an open kitchen, these experiences that were once the stuff of life, are now seen as death traps and “superspreader” events. Many Americans are working from home, as the boundaries between the two spheres become increasingly blurred. We are intimately familiar with the confines of our own four walls. And the cities, states, and countries in which we live are the prime determinants of not only our health and safety, but our very ability to interact with and move about the world.
Depending on your situation, personal space has either been virtually eliminated or has become your entire existence. I live and work alone, and while I still prefer this to the alternatives, now that we’re nine months into this social experiment, at times it can become almost impossibly lonely. Whichever side you’re on, humans were not meant to live this way. How do we know where we end and others begin when we are either endlessly isolated, or inextricably intermeshed with our kin? Without clear markers such as location changes or plans with others, your life can easily turn into one big ellipsis.
I miss the coworking space where I would share ideas and oxygen and inspiration and daily struggles with my fellow freelancers. I miss walking through the Market on my midday breaks, procuring the evening’s produce and breathing the salt air, unmasked. I miss happy hours at the end of the day at The Tasting Room, nestled in Post Alley, and the live music that invariably interrupted my best friend and I as we caught up over local wine and cheese; how I long for a loud musician in close proximity, once seen as such an annoyance, to be the evening’s big problem now.
Indeed, so many of our favorite memories involve sharing food and beverage with others, and often in public space. The things we eat and drink and the ways in which we create and consume them teach us who we are. They preserve and pass down our traditions, marking the meaningful moments of our lives.
Food and beverage is so intimately interconnected with place as to be indistinguishable from it: from the natural environment to the raw ingredients to the people who brought each one to the plate. To eat a cuisine is to know its people in the most intimate of ways: take them into your body and then you will understand. Since humans first walked on two legs, our civilizations have been defined and demarcated by our means of subsistence. When we lose these communal experiences of dining and drinking, do we even know ourselves? Without the opportunity to share food and drink in sacred space with the ones we love, how do we keep our cultures alive?
The existential crisis facing Seattle’s food scene is that of America’s independent food and beverage industry: adapt or die, and do it without any meaningful government support. As the first U.S. city afflicted by the coronavirus, Seattle is ground zero for this struggle—and I have found that it is a model of both the problems and the potential solutions.
Seattle cuisine, as former restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote in a sweeping, 2011 tour of the area for The New York Times, captures something even “more gastronomically celebrated cities … can’t offer, not to this degree: a profound and exhilarating sense of place,” born of uniquely intimate connections between chefs and producers and to the local environment. Here, food is more than farm-to-table. It’s forest-to-fork, sea-to-saucer; the entirety of our bountiful biodiversity in every bite. It’s Copper River salmon and Dungeness crab, locally foraged mushrooms and Applewood-grilled everything.
However, in Seattle, place is both our cuisine’s greatest strength and the local food and beverage industry’s undoing. Rents in Seattle are now the highest in the nation outside California, and with bills coming due and landlords demanding rent even in the midst of sustained shutdowns, the unsustainable nature of this model has become excruciatingly apparent.
“As somebody who's working in a city that has outrageous real estate prices, the only people that can really move into a space and open up shop are these large restaurant groups,” says Zachary Pacleb, co-founder of food pop-up and catering company Brothers & Co. Prior to the pandemic, he wanted to make the leap to a brick-and-mortar, he says, but found real estate prices even in the less popular neighborhoods astronomically out of reach: over $1 million for a tiny space. “Who can come up with that? [Especially] in a small neighborhood, that’s extremely challenging,” he adds.
Those who do have leases are finding themselves often impossibly squeezed. Landlords have offered deferrals, but not forgiveness, simply delaying the inevitable for businesses with little to no income.
“I really think rent forgiveness is the only solution for keeping small businesses in business,” says Chef Traci Calderon, owner of the Atrium Kitchen at Pike Place, a catering business and event space. “It’s the only way they’ll be able to keep their doors open once the economy starts coming back. They don’t have the reserves.” Calderon counts herself among these businesses: When the pandemic struck, her entire events calendar was wiped clean within a matter of weeks, and she turned her space into a full-time community kitchen. To date, she has served nearly 13,000 meals with a four-person, volunteer staff—entirely funded by donations. But how long can businesses like these depend upon the kindness of strangers?
Large commercial real estate holdings wield power over much of the city, and broadly speaking, mortgage holders aren’t offering landlords any breathing room. Rent forgiveness would have to become a city-wide ordinance—an unlikely outcome. As long as commercial landlords can still collect from tech-industry mega-tenants that can afford to keep leasing ghost-town office space, they are unlikely to budge. The City of Seattle passed commercial rent control in May, but this simply freezes rent increases and gives small businesses six months to pay past-due debts—little help in an economy that is staring down the barrel of a long and largely locked-down winter.
“They'll do whatever they can to continue, and they don't really care about this small-family owned restaurant that ... just opened their doors a couple months ago,” says Pacleb of commercial landlords.
In a Nov. 23 press conference on legislative proposals for Washington state restaurant relief, Washington Hospitality Association CEO Anthony Anton noted that Governor Jay Inslee’s recent release of $70M in grants will fund just two days of the current 40-day shutdown; he estimates that restaurants would need $800M to cover the labor and hard costs of this period alone. Business owners and advocates said that relief is needed in the form of grant funding, not additional loans, as well as employment security benefits and business and operations (B&O) tax relief: an onerous burden, several chefs told me, when no income is coming in. They are calling for a special legislative session to be held on more sweeping relief measures; without them, business owners say they won’t survive the winter.
This puts us in danger of losing the most vital stewards of Seattle food: small, independent immigrant-, BIPOC-, and queer-owned restaurants, bars, cafés, and food and beverage businesses, as well as aspiring new culinary voices looking for a way in. The costs of and access to space, and the structural inequalities that, even in the most progressive places, reflect centuries of white supremacy and patriarchal, cis-het dominance, have kept these groups relegated to the margins of a highly stratified bar and restaurant scene.
Those who live on the margins find themselves slowly, quietly forced to less-trafficked neighborhoods, only to find those eventually overrun, too, as escalating rents creep from the central core—seeping to surrounding neighborhoods like a virus, gentrifying areas that were once vibrant and diverse, such as Columbia City, home to some of the city’s only African-owned food businesses, or Capitol Hill, the Seattle neighborhood once known as the “gay ghetto,” once brimming with queer spots where drag queens roamed and gay porn played on TV instead of sports. These places are squeezed out by the next culturally appropriating entrepreneur with a high concept for a low-rent, unassuming space.
That is, until now. Now, you can rent an apartment on the Hill again for less than several grand a month, those highly prized mixed-use spaces sitting vacant in their bowels. Perhaps this is the chance for underrepresented entrepreneurs of all stripes to finally claim a place of their own.
For it is the small empires built by Seattle’s restaurant moguls that proved to be albatrosses in the pandemic, collapsing under their own weight. As national supply chains caved in and stay-at-home orders were handed down, these titans of industry culled workers as meatpacking plants culled cattle. It was the small, agile, independent businesses that were best positioned to survive: those without high overhead costs and with local networks of small-scale suppliers, distributors, and loyal customers that remained activated. They banded together, creating CSA boxes and makeshift grocery operations while supplying restaurants-turned-soup kitchens—not just more established restaurants, such as Chef Edouardo Jordan’s Salare, which served hundreds of daily free meals to unemployed restaurant workers through the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, but also small operations, such as those owned by Calderon and Pacleb, who worked with local suppliers to create charitable meals out of surplus product they needed to offload.
The big guys who had squeezed them out to begin with even turned to some of these business owners for help—from national chains and distributors soliciting local farmers to Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio engaging with Chef Eric Rivera, whose innovative food incubator, Addo, has an ever-adapting model that expertly morphed to fit the dine-at-home model. Yet the major players have thus far demonstrated an unwillingness to fundamentally alter the way they do business; to yield the floor to those who can drive real change. And the small, independent businesses, agile as they may be, don’t have the funds to withstand another month of shutdowns without massive relief.
Helping them means helping all of us. The underrepresented, for whom the dominant culture has never made space, are the innovators who can lead us into the future. And the alternative systems they are part of are the only ones flexible enough to survive the next crises that come our way. Yet supporting them requires not only a government intervention, but a cultural awakening.
“More voices need to be heard. And it's going to take a lot of consumers to kind of change their point of view, and look for those places without being told about [them],” Rivera says. “And I think that's the biggest thing; … how do you change the whole mindset?”
There are actors in the Seattle area who are doing things differently—from those mentioned in this piece to nonprofit and community organizations that are connecting chefs, farmers, producers, consumers, and under-resourced food entrepreneurs in innovative ways. All they need is a place in which to do it. For the future of food lies in collaborative models; in building the relationships that nourish each and every one of us, not only the privileged; and in sharing the space that belongs to us all. As is my mission, I will dive deeper into their stories in future issues of this newsletter as well as in other outlets.
For now, as I sit staring out the window of my own little space, another week of quarantine drawing to the close, watching drops splash light into dark puddles and sipping a dusty Washington Cabernet Franc, I think about the meal I will prepare from my farmer’s-market bounty: a leek the size of my arm that I will slice and sauté with sweet yellow onion; pale-green, pinched Brussels sprouts; and chunks of gnarled, witchy-looking celery root, showered with fresh herbs. I think about every actor that brought each element of this meal to my plate, and how this is what it’s all about—this ecosystem we all inhabit, each of us playing out part. And I realize my immense privilege at being able to secure all these things, and to prepare this meal, and to have access to a farmer’s market system, and for the place where I reside. For all of this I am forever grateful, and alternately enraged that all do not have access to these most basic human rights, and for that I will fight and sound the alarm in whatever way I can.
But I also feel awfully lonely sometimes, and I wish that someone were physically here to share this meal with me, because in that space is where we truly make meaning.