Two of the top restaurant mavens in Seattle, Tom Douglas and Ethan Stowell, are closing restaurants. A kind of survival-of-the-best-formulas is going on, and the golden age of experimentation (and California migration) may be fading. What gives?
There are obvious explanations: a glut of new restaurants, too much easy money chasing investment opportunities, soaring rental rates, nervous lenders with short patience, unsafe downtown streets, shortage of chefs. Then there are the less obvious explanations. One is the hard-to-figure cost of minimum wage boosts, as well as the scheduling requirements. This is such a heated topic in Seattle’s political boxing ring that it is virtually unmentionable. ‘
Another less-discussed factor is the shift from eating out to ordering in. A friend in commercial real estate tells me that apartment lobbies are now so jammed with delivered packages and meals that the reception areas are having to be redesigned to handle all the bundles. Some restaurants can stay ahead of this trend by joining the rush to deliver meals. But long-term, that empty feeling in the restaurant further drives customers away. One might also mention another new form of competition: food trucks.
Lastly, Tom Douglas recently told me that all those restaurants crowding into tech zones like the Ama-zone are finding that tech workers work late and pay so much for renting apartments that they are unreliable customers at dinnertime. (Making up the shortfall: tourists.)
Here’s a suggestion for stimulating more interest in Seattle cuisine. Take a portion of the soon-empty bottom floors of the downtown Macy’s and convert it into a European-style food hall with open kitchens, demonstrations, tastings, exotic cuisines, extensions of Pike Market flower stalls, music and dance. Here’s a good example, the Cite Internationale de la Gastronomie de Lyon. Attention Starwood, manager of the Macy’s building, whose upper floors are now full of Amazonians.