As our restaurants emerge from the roller coaster of the past 16 months, I feel tremendous gratitude for everyone who helped us survive the pandemic. Without the support of generous guests and my loyal, hard-working employees, we would not have made it. To be honest, there were times I worried we might not.
When the pandemic began, most restaurants chose to close but we made the decision to remain open. For me, the thought of closing – even temporarily – felt like giving up, and I could not give up on my employees or my business. While we were forced to temporarily lay off many employees, I was determined to find creative ways to generate revenue that would allow me to bring them all back. I am thankful for our team who shared this vision and worked long hours – side-by-side with me and each other – to accomplish this. In the process, I believe our food brought comfort, familiarity and some much-needed joy to our longtime guests.
As a restaurateur, I am no stranger to obstacles. We opened Seastar during the 2002 recession and navigated another major economic downturn in 2008, but surviving the Covid pandemic forced us to be nimble in ways I never could have imagined.
We knew take-out would not sustain us, so our first idea was to sell rare wine from our restaurant’s cellar. While heartbreaking to part with hundreds of bottles collected over nearly 20 years, the liquidation allowed us to continue paying our employees as we reinvented new offerings for the pandemic home diner. These included curbside delivery, an elevated home delivery service, Family Meals, curbside seafood and butcher boxes, Grab Heat-n-Eat meals, holiday meal kits, among many others.
We also learned how to marry technology and the culinary arts by hosting virtual cooking classes and supporting virtual charitable events. Before March 2020, I had never heard of Zoom but it quickly became an interesting and new way for us to connect isolated people at home with the delicious food they craved.
The Dual Purpose of Charitable Meals
During the early days of COVID, friends and investors contributed toward an effort that funded our ability to make and deliver meals for local frontline healthcare workers. At first, these were small weekly projects, but eventually grew to the dual purpose of nourishing our community while also allowing me to bring back more of our employees. During 2020, we prepared and delivered more than 10,000 meals for healthcare heroes at Evergreen Hospital, Overlake Hospital, Harborview Medical Center, Swedish Medical Center, UW Medicine, Seattle Children’s Hospital and the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, as well as individuals at the Salvation Army, Ronald McDonald House, Congregations for the Homeless men’s shelter, USO, Bothell Senior Center, Bothell Fire Department, the Bellevue Fire Department and more.
About half of the charitable meals we made were the result of a partnership to expand the Seattle Area presence of World Central Kitchen, a non-profit founded by Chef Jose Andres to provide fresh, individually packaged meals in communities that need support. The John Howie Restaurant Group made more than 5,400 meals that were donated to the Prison Scholars, formerly incarcerated individuals and their families, and homeless individuals housed by Catholic Community Services.
Separately, and with the help of generous guests, our restaurant group donated 950 Thanksgiving dinners as part of a Pay-It Forward meals program. For every Thanksgiving family meal purchased at Seastar Restaurant, an identical family meal was donated to Hopelink for families in emergency shelter and transitional housing. For every two Thanksgiving meals purchased from Beardslee Public House, one complete family meal was donated to the Northshore Senior Center in Bothell.
I must say that finding new ways to give back to the community that always supported us provided our team with renewed purpose.
Taking Care of Our Own
Throughout the pandemic, our number one priority was not only keeping our guests safe and healthy but also making sure our employees and their families were safe, healthy and cared for.
On five occasions from March-December 2002, we provided all of our 300 restaurant employees, whether working or not, with food boxes filled with fresh meats, produce and other grocery products. Each large box included enough ingredients for several complete meals and was made possible due to the generosity of investors and private donors. We even provided some of these boxes to the husband of one of my former employees, then a chef at another restaurant, to share with his crew, too.
Our loyal guests were frequently generous with tips for our employees that we equitably distributed as requested and intended. One guest gave us a $1,000 check to buy meals for my employees. It is generosity like this that allowed us to provide our employees with grocery boxes throughout the year.
When the Covid vaccine became broadly available, we created incentives to strongly encourage our employees to protect themselves and their community. Once fully vaccinated, we gave every employee the option to claim a $50 spot bonus, as well as two separate lottery-style drawings for vaccinated employees, those selected could chose $1000 (first drawing) + $750 cash bonuses or $1500 (first drawing) + $1000 restaurant gift cards.
We also felt a responsibility to take care of industry colleagues outside of our restaurant group. Since March 2020, we raised more than $20,000 from bottled wine sales and Wildwood Spirits Co. hand sanitizer donations for Big Table, a local organization that helps restaurant workers in crisis.
It has been a long road to get to where we are, and I am beyond grateful for all the support we have received along the way. It is important to acknowledge our survival would not be possible without the loyal and generous guests who patronized our restaurants throughout the pandemic and returned as soon as they were able. On behalf of my entire restaurant family, I want to say how wonderful it is to finally SEE you all again, and to thank you for helping me continue doing what I love to do: feeding my community and all of you.
With great gratitude and love,
Chef John Howie