Abbie Vermiere and her team at Pixán Taqueria & Cantina had originally expected to open up a steakhouse in White Salmon ... until March happened and the coronavirus swept across the country.
This year has been a wild ride with unexpected twists and turns anyway, so there was frustration, but little surprise, when Vermiere had to close the restaurant’s newly transformed dining room under Governor Jay Inslee’s latest COVID-19 restrictions released in November.
Restricted to outdoor dining, take-out options, and delivery, Vermiere, who co-owns the restaurant, said the goal now is to create a relationship with the community and to get as much food out to people as possible.
Vermiere decided to start a delivery option, which they maintain on weekends for local customers when they have the hands on deck to cover the store’s operations.
Since the restaurant opened for business after the first shutdown in the spring, Vermiere and her team have been grappling with the ever-evolving world of running a business under conditions spurred by COVID-19.
“This is our life now,” Vermiere said. “When we came into it, we were allowed outdoor dining. The city provided extra seating. It was game on.”
Come fall, things seemed to be winding down and the restaurant had been maintaining their outdoor dining and take-out options, while putting work into a remodel of the dining room.
The restaurant was open to indoor dining for just a couple weeks after the remodel was finished when they had to close the dining room to customers: COVID-19 was spiking in the state, and Inslee announced new restrictions.
Vermiere said it is infuriating having to jump through these hoops to run the restaurant.
“It’s hard to see other businesses in other states operating, and there’s so much inconsistency across the board. We put in time, money, and effort to make our dream happen, and then to have the governor take it away… it’s definitely a little heartbreaking,” Vermiere said.
As the weather gets colder and people gravitate inside, restaurant owners like Vermiere are searching for relief and ways to incentivize business during a time when things start to slow down in the restaurant industry.
“Really the way that our building is set up, outdoor seating is not ideal … and it’s no secret that winters around here are really quiet,” Vermiere said.
Since Columbia Gorge News’ interview with Vermiere, the restaurant announced on their Facebook page a shift in business hours. They are now open seven days a week, with shorter hours of operation from noon to 8 p.m.
While indoor dining facilities have been most directly impacted by the latest freeze, which lasts until Dec. 14, the entire food service industry has had to adapt, including food trucks such as Bingen’s own The Huck Truck.
The Huck Truck started out as a lunchtime food truck and event catering service, but co-owner and director Jessie Stenberg said they have had to adjust to this new climate. To them, that meant postponing most catering events, reducing business operations from five days to four days per week, and laying off their sous chef in March. They immediately took to setting up an online ordering system, adding a line of prepared food for customers to take home to cook dinner, and switched to only take-out options to reduce the burden of sanitizing their previous outdoor seating options.
This round of COVID-19 freezes has not impacted The Huck Truck as much as it did in March, since they are doing take-out only, still, “everything is very different than we had planned for the year,” Stenberg said. They have had basically zero catering sales, when it normally amounts to 40 percent of their sales. Stenberg said their regular customers have been vital to the business’ health.
“Clear communication and healthy boundaries as business owners and business partners has been important for keeping us going every week. We have also received grants from Working Washington to help cover costs associated with lost sales during the pandemic,” Stenberg wrote in an email.
Asked what people can do to support restaurant owners and employees, Stenberg said that she hopes that people see “how brittle and vulnerable finances are for people in the service industry.
“I’m sure people offer responses to this question like 'Buy gift cards' and 'Tip more,' but honestly, we need to make sure that every single person has their basic needs met, and for the service industry this means facing the fact that most people working in kitchens and restaurants don’t make enough money to cover basic expenses, don’t have health insurance, and don’t have economic security for the future,” Stenberg said.
Many restaurants in the area are family-owned, The Huck Truck being one, and Stenberg said that this year has demonstrated the importance to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
“We have two kids at home, and 2020 has been intense (as can be),” Stenberg said.
In response to a question asking whether they expect the freeze to be extended, there was not much optimism conveyed through either Stenberg and Vermiere, only realistic expectations that we can hope for the best, but to continue on through the winter, operating on 2020's terms.