Strolling through Seattle’s metro-area streets, it’s no surprise to see businesses boarded up by planks of plywood, signs on windows reading “This location closed permanently, thank you for your business” and others reading “Closed until further notice- Stay safe!” Some stores, including Bartell’s drugstore location downtown, which saw an increase in neighboring crime, have closed their doors for good due to a myriad of reasons — COVID, of course, being a major contributor, as restaurant and shop patronage steeply declined.
There are glimmers of hope: new restaurants and shops announcing grand openings despite the unabated quarantine. Cooper’s Optique in Queen Anne, Black Coffee Northwest in Shoreline, Friendship BBQ in North Seattle and The Missing Piece in West Seattle are just some of the few new establishments that have opened locally during the crisis.
Cooper’s Optique, a high-end optics gallery with quirky and stylish up-end frames, opened in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood not far from Seattle Center.
When asked by Real Change about the decision to open during a pandemic, owner Zac Cooper said, “There was never a doubt of stopping, and there wasn’t really a choice.”
Cooper and his partner had started taking out loans in the early fall of 2019 and begun remodeling the space to its current iteration in January 2020. Simultaneously just north, Friendship BBQ started renovating an old AT&T store into a Chinese barbecue restaurant in the months prior to Seattleites learning of COVID.
Cooper’s determined sentiment was common among the new establishments, especially those who had started planning long before the COVID-19 pandemic was announced or identified in the US. Planning, loans, permits and renovations take time and money. By the time the stay-at-home orders were in place, there were only two options for many new business owners: Go forward and risk it all or lose it all without trying.
Not all the business ideas behind Seattle’s new gems were conceived prior to COVID-19. Black Coffee Northwest, a Black-owned nonprofit coffee shop in Shoreline opened in mid-October 2020. The owners only bought the space in mid-summer. One thing that makes this shop special is that it was conceived and created in COVID.
Also, it endured a racially-motivated arson attack. This pushed their grand opening back a week, the owner Darnesha Weary said. Clean-up from the arson only added to the already physically and emotionally demanding ordeal of opening a new business with extra health precautions for a pandemic.
“We ordered things ahead of time,” Weary said. “I’m prepared for the worst possible scenario. Ordering extra non-perishables. We have plans in place for the worst possible case without creating fear in staff. We’ve adjusted payroll for now. If we’re closed for the week, we at least know our staff will be paid.”
The people of Black Coffee Northwest, whose community depends on the space being available to use, told Real Change that prior to the governor’s latest, winter 2020 restrictions, they were able to host small events for the community.
Black Coffee Northwest is currently adjusting their hours on a week-to-week basis, and only accepting drive through orders on weekdays and open limited hours and for walk-in orders Saturdays. But they hope to be a rare gathering space for the north-end’s small Black community, and an intentional safe space for Black, Indigenous and of-color youth.
In the meantime, Black Coffee Northwest has received strong, consistent support. “They’re buying coffee and making a point to come here,” Weary said of the shop’s patrons. “Our community has kept their eyes on our business.”
Perks of the market
All businesses have a life cycle of their own because of supply and demand forces, as well as other social and economic influences. Ups and downs in the economy are expected, and we’ve seen them through the Great Depression, the recessions of the 1970s and, recently, the 2008 stock market crash. But COVID-19 is a different beast. It’s a biological influencer, real and tangible in a way that ideologically-grounded principles of supply and demand, stock markets and Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” are not. COVID-19 is an immediate threat to human health and wellbeing, and the way it has battered the economy is distinct.
According to Jeffrey Shulman, a marketing professor for the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, the pandemic has changed how and where people shop. The Seattle tech workforce commuting patterns that have almost halted also affect this shift. For examples, restaurants and fast-food eateries in South Lake Union catered to Amazon office workers, who are now all working from home and leaving these businesses without income.
“Individuals constantly are changing their patterns, but to have such systemic pattern changes across so many different people ... all sorts of changes are all happening simultaneously,” he said.
In December 2020, there were 28.7% fewer business openings in King County than there were in January 2020. The License and Tax administration team with the Department of Finance and Administrative Services reported 3,480 new registrations and 1,633 closures since March 1, 2020, though it should be noted that all closure information will not be received until the end of the year. New business license start dates are tracked monthly by the city. Data from Seattle’s Office of Economic Development shows that since February, there have been at least 50% fewer business licenses issued each month compared to the same time in 2019.
The ones that have opened are in an interesting position. They are taking a risk, yet being able to operate and survive through the pandemic may end up being a positive, especially as the rollout of Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines usher us into “the beginning of the end.”
“If people have money, now is a great time to start a business,” Shulman said. Though downtown and many parts of Seattle are boarded up and look like ghost towns of their former selves, the areas will likely bounce back.
Shulman says having the financial stability to operate a business under such strenuous conditions and dwindling revenue is what will bode well for a business being able to buoy the pandemic waves.
“People who have the cash to suffer through another 10 months or so — that they’ll be rewarded because they will have a leg up, building the expertise, and will serve as people return to downtown or return to some semblance of normalcy,” he said.
Shulman has a caveat, though: This same advantage further cleaves the divide between small businesses with skinny profit margins and those that can afford to continue operations despite low sales. These dynamics privilege wealthier, whiter businesses.
“There is such chaos that those who have the expertise and the financial means to address these new needs [are] succeeding really well, and those who don’t have those sources or expertise, they are really struggling,” he said.
Shulman has studied Seattle’s growth over the past decade. A booming economy was attractive to all kinds of entrepreneurs and businesses, like caterers and restauranteurs, all of whom were competing for the same clientele. That competition has come to nearly a standstill in regards to growing the market with new ventures. “So, starting now — few businesses can start right now — is better than waiting until everyone is trying to reach that same [goal],” Shulman said.
Going for it
The entrepeneurs had to make hard choices about what opening would mean. Unlike other businesses who pivoted, these new establishments would be starting from scratch, trying to reel in new clientele.
Like the other business owners here, Lauren Rowland couldn’t not open The Missing Piece this year, if it were to open at all. Waiting to weather out COVID before opening their boardgame cafe wasn’t an option. “We really didn’t have a choice of waiting because we had leased the space and spent a lot of money for build out,” Rowland said.
The store opened in September and has two private rooms that are available for rent. While the neighborhood and community members have been welcoming and supportive, buying games for friends and family, Rowland said that The Missing Piece hasn’t necessarily been able to operate in the way it wanted to — namely, as a community gathering place. Earlier in the quarantine, the space was open until 10 p.m., and yet each evening the seats were empty.
Rowland says they have been able to adjust and will weather out the tide of quarantines and state restrictions. That does come with modifications to her ideal visions and other creative workings to remain relevant for the time being. They’ve changed their events, added morning cafe hours from 5:30-8:00 a.m. to accommodate coffee demands and are finding a way to create a “free to play” game library where games can be sterilized to reduce the risk of transmission through surfaces.
People still want these services, but public health restrictions are also a priority. Sometimes, modifying the vision is the most reasonable way for both those needs to meet in the middle.
Cooper’s Optique changed its business model to offer online consultations and virtual events. Cooper says walk-ins are still available, but with a very limited capacity. Measurements for glasses are now also done online, opening up to new clients.
Amid the statewide changes made in mid-November, Cooper’s Optique has seen success in its new approach, including holding well-received virtual art shows.
“People are purchasing art from art shows,” Cooper said. He adds that people realize that no matter what, small businesses are going to be hurting, so patrons make a conscious effort to support the store — whether virtually or in-person.
“There’s definitely always another push of community that comes in. People want ... to support a store in Uptown to keep Uptown alive,” he said.
The businesses Real Change interviewed for this piece are not alone in saying that the communities they serve have been incredibly supportive. You can see this in numerous “Buy Local” campaigns, from those spearheaded by Seattle’s Office of Economic Development in partnership with private and nonprofit organizations, to business associations doing everything in their power to support their neighborhoods.
People want to support homegrown small businesses, in which owners like Cooper, Rowland and Weary have invested not only their life savings but their extensive emotional and physical labor. Along with the actual services and products they offer, these business owners are passionate about bringing people together and fostering the interpersonal relationships that connect us.
Communities have rallied to support local businesses, despite the virus. And hopefully those businesses will still be around to provide welcoming spaces when the virus has finally lost its edge. As Cooper says, “Local businesses are what make neighborhoods thrive.”
Read more in the Dec. 30, 2020 - Jan. 5, 2021 issue.