Washougal restaurants cope with new reality during COVID-19 crisis

Many have had to layoff employees or close temporarily; others rely on delivery and curbside services to stay afloat

The OurBar restaurant in downtown Washougal is one of many local eateries that is boxing its food for to-go and/or delivery orders. (Contributed photo courtesy of Alex Yost)

When Ryon Morrison, the owner of the Taberna NW delicatessen in downtown Washougal, looked at his business’ sales figures for the week of Sunday, March 22, he had no choice but to face the harsh new reality that has caused a great deal of anguish to restaurant owners during the past few weeks. 

“Last week was really, really bad for me,” Morrison said Monday, March 30. “Thankfully I had some good friends that were there for me when I needed to talk. It was really hard. At the end of last week there were a lot of tears, and heartbreak, and me asking myself, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ It’s hard to stay optimistic, to be honest.”

Morrison is not alone in that regard. The restaurant industry has been devastated as a result of the widespread outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 disease. On Monday, March 16, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced a statewide shutdown of all eateries and bars.

As a result, local restaurants have closed their dining rooms and many have implemented to-go, curbside or delivery service. Nearly all have had to layoff some or most of their employees. A few have closed temporarily.

Here’s a look at how three Washougal restaurants and a local food delivery service are dealing with the new reality:

 

OurBar

Alex Yost, the owner and head chef of OurBar, is offering to-go service and is pondering the possibility of personally delivering meals on Monday and Tuesday afternoons.

She’s also thinking about other methods to sell her product, such as packaging individual ingredients with instructions for making some of her most popular dishes at home.

“I’ve even thought of making some tutorial videos — like, ‘This is how to saute this,’ or, ‘This is how to cut an onion,’” she said. “I  just want to get people engaged and have fun by providing ingredients and the tools and confidence they need. 

“I tend to get really creative when I’m backed into a corner,” she continued. “The whole point around my ‘eat real food’ mantra is that people want to be around each other while enjoying a meal, and now it’s mandated that they can’t be (together). I’m trying to figure out how I can still share my ethos through food, but in a box.”

One way that Yost has done that is through her social media channels. During the past several weeks she’s posted a series of personal, heartfelt messages, anecdotes and words of wisdom on OurBar’s Instagram and Facebook pages.

“I’m an optimist by nature, so I’m taking that positive energy and putting it into thoughtful words,” she said. “I want to tell stories about my background, where I came from, and use this time to get to know (the community) better through digital outreach. I want to provide people with more than just updates. They get that from me in person when they come in. People tend to respond to direct appeals from the heart.”

Despite her efforts, however, Yost has seen a “substantial dip” in business during the past few weeks. She was forced to let go of all of her employees with the exception of manager Sara Wakeman, but established a fundraiser, titled “Eat Real Food Employee Disaster Relief Fund,” on Venmo to assist the displaced workers, and hopes to bring them back soon.

And because Yost prides herself on creating dishes made from fresh, local, sustainable produce, she’s trying to “figure out a way to still support the farmers.”

“They didn’t plant fewer crops this year, after all,” she said. “I’m still hitting up the farmer’s  markets as frequently as I can because I want to put money in their pockets, but that’s a challenge for me. There’s been shortages on some things, and that’s been hard, but Foods In Season has hooked me up with some mushrooms and other forage items, and a lot of the purveyors have dropped their minimums and changed their delivery days to accommodate us. I’m not saying it’s been easy, but people have been willing to work with us.”

 

Washougal Times

During this time of crisis, Washougal Times owner and head chef Ben Jackson has turned his focus outward instead of inward.

Beginning on Monday, March 16 — three days after Inslee closed all K-12 schools in the state for at least six weeks — Jackson began offering free lunches to students at his restaurant from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Tuesday through Friday. 

He’s been helped by some of his vendors, such as SteBo’s Food Service, Dairy Fresh Farms, Portland French Bakery and Pacific Coast Fruit, who have donated the lunch items.

“It’s been great,” said Jackson, who added that he’s been giving out an average of 30 to 40 lunches per day. “I wish we could help more — we hear stories about people not being able to get here. But I think the community is doing everything it can to help people. I’m not the only one. (When I heard about the school closure), I just knew I wanted to provide something. I know for a lot of those kids, the school lunch is the only meal they have. I thought this would be a good way to give back and help those that are in need. We’ll do it for as long as we can. The need is there.”

Jackson is offering his food through Skip The trip Delivery, a local food delivery service, as well as to-go and curbside pickup.

“The community has been totally, unbelievably supportive,” he said. “We still have people who show up here every day. If safety is your No. 1 priority, and it should be, then delivery (and take-out) is absolutely the way to go. I’m just overly grateful that we still have this chance to provide a service to the community. We will continue to do that until (this crisis) is over or until we can’t anymore.”

Jackson promotes his restaurant as a true community gathering place, where people can gather for sports banquets or other types of family celebrations, or simply come for a meal and listen to some live music.

So while Jackson is putting all of his effort into his delivery and to-go services, he’s already looking forward to the day when his building is filled once again.

“I’m absolutely optimistic,” he said. “I tell people, ‘You know how much better the food will taste when things get back to normal? And not just here. When that happens, we all have a chance to reset, in a way. I think there will be a lot of positives for the community and the state and the world. I 100 percent look forward to the day that we can have a big party. I can’t wait to open my doors and say, ‘Come on in.’’’

 

Taberna NW

When Morrison heard that Alex Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant located in the Logsdon Farmhouse Ales building in downtown Washougal, was forced to temporarily shut down earlier this month, he offered Alex Ramirez, Alex Smokehouse’s owner and head chef, an opportunity to sell smoke brisket tacos at Taberna NW from for three hours on  the afternoon of Tuesday, March 24.

“(The ‘pop-up’) went really, really well,” Morrison said. “So well that I want to see if we can do it again. These are unprecedented times. Everybody’s in uncharted waters, and I think it’s more important than ever to come together as a community to help each other out.”

As the owner of a new business — Taberna NW opened in January — Morrison didn’t have much of a margin for error when the pandemic hit. He had to let go all but two of his employees, and may be forced to limit his service hours to three per day.

“Unemployment is way up, and I couldn’t fault somebody who’s unemployed for not wanting to buy a $12 sandwich. I probably wouldn’t either,” said Morrison, who has posted semi-regular video updates to his social media channels during the past two weeks. “People who typically go out once or twice a week are now going out once or twice per month. Every day I’m wondering what I can do differently or how to adapt. Do I liquidate the product and shut down temporarily? Shut down for good? I’ve got a whole lot of questions, but I don’t have any good answers. I’m taking it day by day, and that’s tough because I know that’s not what customers want to hear.”

 

Skip The Trip Delivery

While restaurants are dealing with a decrease in business, Skip the Trip Delivery is dealing with the opposite problem. 

“Our business has increased over the last couple of weeks,” said Skip The Trip Delivery co-owner Katie O’Daniel. “We have had a number of restaurants throughout the community reaching out to us to get signed on. We are bringing on as many as we can as fast as we can. We have already brought on extra drivers so we can accommodate more deliveries.”

O’Daniel said that her main goal at this point is “to keep these locally owned restaurants open and running.”

“I want them to be able to bring in as much revenue as possible during a time when a lot of them are struggling to know if they will be able to cover all of their overhead costs that are there to continue running,” O’Daniel said. “We are fortunate enough that when we started this business, we chose to only partner with locally owned restaurants. I feel the fact that we do only partner with locally owned restaurants and us being 100 percent locally owned, customers — especially right now — are really about supporting locally owned businesses, and it helps knowing they are supporting two with one order. 

“Also, we are lucky enough that we have always done delivery to all areas of Camas and Washougal, so we are able to please so many customers who are too nervous to leave their house to even go do a pick-up order,” she continued. “It just gives the community as a whole another option for getting food to them.”

Skip The Trip Delivery has instituted a “no-contact” policy for all of its deliveries during this time.

“This means we ring the doorbell and knock, leave the food in front of the door, then we head back to our car,” O’Daniel said. “We do wait to make sure they answer the door and grab their food, but this ensures they are all able to have no contact right now.”