Orcas Island restaurants struggle with more tourists, fewer workers, high cost of living

ORCAS ISLAND — During the height of this summer time’s vacationer season, Orcas Island appeared to draw nearly everybody — besides the employees who make it run.

Posted on the doorway of Enzo’s Caffe and Gelateria in downtown: “Our summer staff is going back to school! With the island labor shortage, we’ve been unable fill those positions. As such, we’ve made the difficult decision to [be] closed on Fridays.”

Across the road: “Due to the current labor shortage Pizzeria Portofino is only able to offer takeout service at this time. Thank you for your understanding.”

A sign at Pizzeria Portofino, in Eastsound, Orcas Island, on Thursday.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)


Nearby, the signal posted at Hogstone’s Wood Oven restaurant, about 90 minutes after it opened for takeout with a skeleton crew, learn “sold out.”

One exasperated customer, after wandering round Main Street, turned to his spouse and children and requested, “Where the hell are we gonna eat now?”

For a traditional Pacific Northwest vacationer city that has all the time been a scorching ticket in the summertime, the pandemic-induced journey fervor has sophisticated life for restaurateurs who face a scarcity of each labor and reasonably priced housing. These restaurant house owners have been capable of finding employees off the island. They simply can’t discover wherever to place them up. Worse, whilst we method Labor Day, which normally marks the top of vacationer season within the San Juans, the vacationer surge exhibits no signal of slowing. Despite a statewide spike in coronavirus infections and cuts in frequency of ferry service to the San Juan Islands, resort rooms are filling up quick in October, a month that’s normally a sluggish interval.

Worker scarcity meets vacationer season for the ages

A sign at Orcas Island Hardware in Eastsound is seen on Thursday. Locals at the hardware store say many stores and restaurants struggle with finding full-time workers and housing for them. 
 (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)


Just as in Telluride, Colorado, and different resort cities, the shortage of reasonably priced housing on Orcas Island — Oprah Winfrey not too long ago offered her property on the island for $14 million — means restaurants have needed to minimize lunch or dinner service and cap the quantity of prospects in eating rooms so their understaffed crew can sustain with orders.

The flood of vacationers is uncommon. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, this 12 months’s month-to-month ridership on the principle ferry route from Anacortes to Orcas Island, when checked out 12 months over 12 months, has, in some months surpassed ridership numbers from 2019. And that’s with one fewer ferry in service.

Lance Evans, government director of the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce for 15 years, stated he has by no means seen this a lot vacationer visitors and doesn’t foresee it really fizzling out since most resorts and different lodging have been booked far past Labor Day this 12 months.

Crowds take the ferry from Anacortes, Wash. to Orcas and Shaw Islands Thursday, August 26, 2021.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)


An casual Seattle Times survey of 10 bed-and-breakfast inns and resorts on Orcas Island confirmed that 90% of rooms have already been reserved by means of mid-October.

At Moran State Park and Mount Constitution, the highest vacationer attraction on the island, park rangers report that the quantity of day park customers elevated 15% from May to July (the most recent determine out there) in contrast with the identical interval earlier than the pandemic. All campsites are booked by means of Labor Day weekend and likewise filling up for the remainder of October at a quicker charge than previously, park rangers reported.

One camper, Michelle Roberts of Edmonds, says that within the 25 years that she has frequented the San Juan Islands, she has by no means skilled a labor scarcity this dangerous.

“There were fewer restaurants [open]. Meals took longer to be served. There were dirty tables,” Roberts stated, including that servers “couldn’t seat customers. They were so understaffed, they couldn’t get to everybody. They were stressed out, they were so overworked.”

Crowds wait for the ferry to Orcas Island in Anacortes.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)


The restaurants are certainly struggling underneath the pressure. At instances, the house owners of Matia Kitchen & Bar in Eastsound felt like your entire fleet of vacationers had descended upon their eating room.

Drew Downing and Avery Adams, alums of the nationally acclaimed Hogstone’s Wood Oven restaurant, and two different co-owners, launched their farm-focused Matia Kitchen & Bar in May.

Their eating scene was hectic however acquired more frantic after New York Times meals columnist J. Kenji López-Alt dined on the restaurant in June and tapped this shoutout to his 400,000 followers on Instagram: “This is the best, most exciting restaurant I’ve been to in at least a decade or longer. I can’t remember being so blown away by the food and wine program … Local food and casual dining at its finest.”

After that rave, Matia’s reservation line crashed in a single day, overloaded by 200 voicemails. About 40 folks stuffed the parking zone the following morning to get a leap on the lunch line. This grew to become Matia’s Groundhog Day. The fixed ringing of the cellphone might have doubled for the background music throughout service.

Traffic has only increased at Matia Kitchen & Bar in Eastsound, Orcas Island since a New York Times writer extolled it on social media.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)


Of course the excitement got here at a time when Matia was brief two cooks, two dishwashers, two bussers and a bunch. Co-owner Downing stuffed in on many of these roles. His workers scrambled and sweated throughout lunch and dinner service.

“I was in a freefall. For the first time, I lost control of my restaurant,” Downing stated.
“People say this is a good problem to have. [But] if guests have to wait for their food, that’s not a good problem for them. And that makes it a problem for us.”
Downing took out 30 of the 90 restaurant seats and turned away diners to sluggish the tempo.

“Of course you lose money,” by taking tables away, he stated. But “this is not a cash grab. I’m not going to sacrifice the customer experience for the bottom line. We are not Red Lobster.”

Three blocks east of Matia sits the opposite heralded restaurant on the town, Hogstone’s Wood Oven, headed by Jay Blackinton, whom Food & Wine journal anointed one of the best new chefs of 2017.

Tim Coffey, dining room manager at Matia Kitchen & Bar in Eastsound, Orcas Island. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)


Both Matia and Hogstone’s share a server who not too long ago handed in her discover and is transferring to London. Because neither restaurant can substitute her, Hogstone’s will seemingly simply supply takeout going ahead, whereas Matia will shut down its lunch service on weekdays, administration at each restaurants stated.

No housing, no employees

Orcas isn’t resistant to the labor scarcity that has plagued Seattle and different metropolitan areas. But in years previous, Orcas restaurateurs might all the time eke out a kitchen workers with the gross sales pitch of an island paradise and the lure of $350 in recommendations on nights throughout vacationer season. This 12 months, many restaurateurs stated that they had lined up cooks and servers from round Washington and Oregon solely to lose them as a result of of “no vacancy” indicators on the island.

The disaster is so dire that Downing gave up his two-bedroom residence to 2 new staff whereas he lived out of his automotive for some time, simply so he would have sufficient staffing to open this summer time.

“I needed employees more than I needed a house. That decision seems like a no-brainer,” Downing stated.

Matia Kitchen & Bar’s Avery Adams, left, and Drew Downing.  (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)


Other restaurant house owners have relied on out of city pals and family to work of their kitchens after which crash on their couches or spare beds at evening.

To hear the restaurant house owners and employees inform it, making an attempt to attain a one-bedroom rental on the island for underneath $2,000 a month is like searching for a needle in a haystack.

One issue usually cited by employees is the rise of short-term leases equivalent to Airbnb and Vrbo, and landlords who deal with that income stream moderately than leases to households.

Landlords could make more in per week by renting to vacationers than they’d make in a month renting to locals. According to AirDNA, a analysis agency that tracks trip leases, the typical cost to hire a trip dwelling on Orcas Island runs $410 an evening in July.

This summer time, after a contentious debate, the San Juan County Council voted unanimously to increase its moratorium on new short-term leases on the San Juan Islands, primarily capping the present quantity of short-term rental permits to about 500 on Orcas.

There had been different reduction efforts. Last 12 months, 45 reasonably priced residence models had been erected on Orcas, however these shortly acquired snatched up after virtually 250 folks utilized, in keeping with the OPAL Community Land Trust.

For the native restaurant business, the staggering quantity of low-income candidates underscores the disparity of many resort cities that depend on the hospitality workforce to maintain their tourism engine buzzing, however don’t present these employees with reasonably priced housing.

Some native restaurateurs are taking issues into their very own arms by constructing lodging for his or her workers.

The island’s subsequent huge opening is the wine bar Roots Orcas Island underneath house owners Cole Sisson and Shea Sasan. Sisson is a sommelier on the Bellagio on line casino in Las Vegas and the late RN74 in Seattle.

The wine bar — nonetheless underneath development, although guests can seize espresso there — has not confronted staffing challenges as a result of the house owners have plopped down a trailer and mother-in-law unit to accommodate their very own workforce, and have plans to purchase one other property to lease to their staff.

“If you can secure housing, you are in a really strong position” as a restaurant proprietor right here, stated Sisson. “You can bring people up from all over because Orcas is a very desirable place to live.”

Sisson is working with Washington State University to recruit graduates within the hospitality fields to tackle paid yearlong internships with lodging supplied. He’s additionally planning to supply housing for knowledgeable staff equivalent to sommeliers and managers.

Many small enterprise house owners, although, don’t have the capital to accommodate their staff.

But Blackinton, chef and proprietor of Hogstone’s, worries there could be no different choice if restaurants are to outlive on Orcas. The James Beard-nominated chef shut down his restaurant Ælder and pared down the menu of Hogstone’s partly as a result of he couldn’t safe housing for 3 cooks from Oregon who needed to work in his kitchen.

To survive sooner or later, Blackinton reckons he must construct three to 4 sleeping quarters subsequent to his restaurant. “Where am I going to find money to do that? I don’t know.”

Other restaurant house owners have additionally began workers housing tasks in numerous phases. Two house owners constructed mother-in-law models of their backyards for his or her line cooks. Another formidable challenge is Mijitas Mexican Kitchen, which is making use of for a allow to construct a housing unit behind its restaurant in downtown.

Matia can also look to purchase a property to accommodate future staff if the labor and housing scarcity continues. “I’ve never owned my own house. And the first house I buy might be to [be used as] staff housing,” co-owner Downing stated laughing. “That’s the nature of the beast here.”


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