Anchorage restaurants brace for a hard winter and the possibility of another shutdown

Winter is difficult for businesses during a normal year, and now the city is facing its worst surge of the coronavirus pandemic so far.

After enduring more than eight months of slow-to-no business, two shutdowns and a slew of changing coronavirus health restrictions, industry leaders say many Anchorage restaurants, bars and breweries are on the brink of closure.

They must now survive the long, cold winter months — a difficult time even during a normal year — while the city is facing its worst spike in the pandemic so far.

“The industry is terrified of being shut back down,” said Sarah Oates, president of the Alaska Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association.

Johnny Suon, owner of The Hott Spot in Northeast Anchorage, said closures have been particularly difficult for small businesses like his own.

“Every day we pray just the door stays open, that all our community will keep supporting all the local businesses,” said Suon.

On Wednesday, fear of a shutdown escalated as word of an impending in-person dining closure spread through the industry. But Wednesday evening, Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson in a statement said that she is not announcing any new mandates this week.

Still, the probability of a shutdown looms as cases climb. Quinn-Davidson said she is monitoring the situation closely and “will not allow hospitals to become overrun.” Health experts have warned that with cases surging across the state, Anchorage hospitals could quickly become overwhelmed.

[‘We will not allow hospitals to become overrun’: Mayor warns COVID-19 trends aren’t sustainable without new mandates]

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy last week issued a statewide emergency alert about the worsening pandemic and implored Alaskans to avoid social settings.

“That put the nail on top of our coffin,” Dawit Ogbamichael, owner of Ethiopian restaurant Queen of Sheba, said.

The Midtown restaurant hasn’t seen an in-person customer since Dunleavy’s announcement, Ogbamichael said. Business has been bad for months, worsening as the case counts rise.

It’s a phenomenon that UAA economics professor Kevin Berry recently described — while mandates do have an impact, a bigger problem is that people go out less the more they fear getting sick.

For now, some business owners like Ogbamichael are getting creative as they looking for new ways to stay afloat. Some are trying to cling on just long enough until more federal aid or state economic relief comes through, others until a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available and improves business.

If they can just hold on until spring, they might survive, the thinking goes.

A handful of restaurants are voluntarily shutting down in-person dining, their owners worried about the health and safety of employees and customers, and convinced a mandated shutdown will soon come.

Industry leaders fear a permanently changed city by winter’s end, worrying that many small, locally-owned businesses will be shuttered.

[In urgent plea, Anchorage officials and business leaders say what happens next with COVID-19 rests in public’s hands]

“Our industry is suffering. It’s suffering a lot, and many businesses will not open their doors again if there is another hunker-down or more restrictions,” said Silvia Villamides, executive director of Alaska Hospitality Retailers.

An ‘impending doom’

Several places have already closed, either temporarily or for good. It’s a tough business with razor-thin profit margins. This week, the Alleyway Grille, off Fireweed and Arctic Boulevard, announced it will close later this month. Also this week, Bernies’ Bungalow Lounge, a longtime downtown staple, announced that it is closing for daily operations until further notice.

“I think there’s this impending doom feeling that everybody’s feeling right now,” said Brandi Rathbun, owner of downtown café Moose A’la Mode. “At least my friends that are business owners, we’re waiting for the next shutdown.”

The café is dependent on a downtown breakfast and lunch crowd and foot traffic from the nearby courthouse, which has been nonexistent.

“We’re down 60% from where we projected we would be right now,” Rathbun said Wednesday. “Just compared to last week, we’re down 35% — and last week was bad.”

Ogbamichael said many restaurants he knows have closed or are planning permanent closures. He was planning to close Queen of Sheba about a month ago, until an anonymous donor left money in an envelope with a note beneath their mail slot, he said.

“They say not to close, please. And all they say was, ‘I can help, and that’s why I’m doing it.’ And that was it,” Ogbamichael said.

[As winter sets in and the pandemic drags on, food banks and other aid providers see a surge of Alaskans needing help]

It was a lot of money, he said, not answering exactly how much. Enough to cover the mounting rent, electricity and gas bills.

“I thought there was no angels left anywhere, but there are angels everywhere now,” he said.

Now, Ogbamichael is trying to transform his two-year-old business to bring in more money. He’s ordering raw, organic coffee from Ethiopia which he will roast in the restaurant. He’s adding breakfast to the menu, and trying to expand the takeout business, he said.

“That’s what we’re trying to do for this winter, if we can make it. Summer, everything is possible,” he said. “But right now it’s just very, very difficult.”

At The Hott Spot, Suon is focusing on following mandates and COVID-19 mitigation protocols, he said. He worries about the ripple effect of another shutdown on his employees and his own family.

Takeout isn’t easy for his restaurant, which serves up big, steaming pots of hot soup. His business is surviving on the support of loyal regulars that keep coming in, he said.

The restaurant has received some economic relief aid, but it just kept the rent paid and lights on, and it’s long gone, Suon said.

“I need to survive to keep my mortgage going, I need to put food on on my kids’ plate,” Suon said. His employees need the same, he said.

[States tightening anti-virus restrictions amid case surge]

Bernadette Bradley, owner of the Bradley House, a bar and restaurant in South Anchorage, is also worried about her employees.

This week the restaurant is prepping for another shutdown and drafting a new to-go menu, Bradley said. She’s down from her usual 25 employees to about 15, and if a new mandate comes out, she’ll have to lay people off or rotate staff through shifts, she said.

“You could have a day that’s super busy. And the next day, you’re scheduling, things are turning around, and then it ends up being really slow, and you have to send everybody home,” Bradley said. “I feel bad for the staff, because I can’t give them any confidence on what’s going to happen in the future or what hours we are going to have — I just don’t know.”

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Bradley is operating the restaurant in the red, losing between $5,000 to $8,000 a month — better than the $12,000 she was losing during total shutdowns, she said.

“If there’s a second stimulus, I can make it to summer,” she said.

Bradley, 57, is recovering from a recent bout with the coronavirus. No one else in the restaurant got it, and she thinks she became infected at a family birthday party.

“I thought I was going to die,” she said.

‘Walking a tightrope’

The industry is in survival mode, facing worsening prospects as the pandemic worsens, too, Villamides said.

“We’re concerned about both sides — the health side effects and the economic side of it,” Villamides said. “We are standing in between a collapse of a tsunami and an earthquake and we’re in the middle of it. What are we going to do?”

A few restaurants have chosen to preemptively close to indoor dining ahead of any mandate, including Rathbun at Moose A’la Mode.

Rathbun and her husband bought the place in January, just a few months before the city went into “hunker down.” They sank every penny they had into the café, she said. Soon, they had to lay off all their employees.

It’s just Rathbun and her husband cooking, serving, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces after each customer comes through. It’s too much, she said.

“We don’t even want to take the chance of anybody getting sick and having us be a hotspot of any kind,” she said.

They’ve reconfigured their space for walk-ins, allowing one-way foot traffic in to order takeout, she said. Businesses in the industry are all very different, depending on what they serve, their customer base, location and space.

[Palmer council delays decision on emergency mask mandate amid flood of public comments]

“So there’s not really a clear, clean way to go,” Rathbun said. “And so we’re all just kind of doing it the best we can and trying to do it how it works best for each of us.”

For Rich Owens, owner of the Jewel Lake Tastee Freez, a popular and longstanding burger and shake joint on the way to Kincaid Park, the decision to close to in-person dining this week was the right one.

Owens said he fears the worst consequences of the virus — customers and employees getting severely ill, even dying.

“If somebody is here, and I haven’t been as careful as I can possibly be, and they get it, and then they die — the feeling, that will be a lifetime,” he said.

The decision to close, he said, felt right in his heart.

Still, “you feel like you’re walking a tightrope,” Owens said. “How much can I afford to tighten down?”

Owens’ business did perk up through the summer but it’s dropped off dramatically since. He depends on traffic to Kincaid, like fall soccer and winter skiing events. A lot of those things aren’t happening, he said.

He’s in a better position than some places — his menu is perfect for to-go, and the business is a beloved local mainstay.

“We’ll survive. It’ll just be tight for a while, I think,” Owens said. “I hope that everybody tries to cooperate here with social distancing and masks until we can get a grip on this. ... It’s not going to go away and it’s going be a long time before there’s enough vaccine.”

Rathbun, too, is holding out hope.

“We will survive this. We’re lifelong Alaskans. We’re tough. We’ve got this,” Rathbun said. “We can come through anything, but we’re trying to navigate it carefully so that we can make it.”

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at