Black-Owned Restaurants Continue to Adapt to Ever-Changing Dining Restrictions

by Chamidae Ford

As the pandemic has raged across the globe, there have been glimmers of hope that we may be exiting the worst of it. Unfortunately for Washington business owners, the recent record-breaking spike in COVID-19 cases has led to another round of tightening restrictions by Governor Jay Inslee. 

These new restrictions banned indoor seating at restaurants once again, another blow to an industry that has already been hit hard. 

Considering the dropping temperatures and increasing amount of rainy days, outdoor seating has lost its appeal to many. And despite the small business stabilization fund that the City of Seattle rolled out in June, there has been no other support for small businesses that are suffering massive losses from the decrease in traffic. 

But while the odds are daunting, there are still many Black-owned neighborhood businesses in South Seattle that have managed to keep going, adapting to each wave the pandemic has sent their way.  

Kaffa Coffee & Wine Bar

Kaffa, an Ethiopian restaurant located at 8136 Rainier Avenue South, specializes in Ethiopian coffee and dishes. 

Started by Milen Gebreselassie and her husband six years ago, following their immigration from Ethiopia to the United States, the idea was born from their background in food and business. 

They take great pride in providing authentic Ethiopian food and coffee for the people in their community.

“We have a very rich culture we wanted to share with Seattle and Seattle’s community,” Gebreselassie said.  

With the new restrictions put into place, Kaffa once again had to close their dining room, but the support from the community has been the force keeping them going. 

“It was something different, but we survived. The community was very supportive. Coming and asking us how we are doing and buying what we are selling,” Gebreselassie said.

Kaffa Coffee & Wine Bar (Photo: Susan Fried)

The community aspect of Kaffa is seen in every aspect of the way they do business. Kaffa has provided food and water for protesters in the community and has donated meals to Plant Based Food Share for families in need. 

“[We are] trying to be as supportive as we can because we know that people have been very nice to us,” Gebreselassie said. 

Kaffa is prepared to continue as long as the pandemic goes on.

“We have to adapt, you know, thinking about our future. We’re really working towards better online virtual sales and online services. We upgraded our website to accept more orders and accepting orders through all, almost all, the delivery services,” Gebreselassie said.

You can place an order on Kaffa’s website or through the delivery apps Seamless, Grubhub, Caviar, Uber Eats, DoorDash, and Allset

Island Soul

This Caribbean soul-fusion restaurant is a multi-generational, family-owned joint, which opened 15 years ago.

Theo Martin’s father started the restaurant. But after his father became ill, Martin took over. He continued running Island Soul after his father died, unable to imagine letting it go.

“I always had a passion for food, for people, for gatherings,” Martin said. “You know, one thing about a restaurant, especially if you’re in the business, the greatest thing is to see people, eat food and laugh and smile and enjoy themselves.”

Island Soul’s outdoor dining area (Photo by Susan Fried)

This dedication and love for what they do at Soul Island resulted in only a short week-long closure during the early days of the pandemic. Martin knew he had to keep going.

“You had employees, you had bills, you had food in the refrigerator, you know, and there was no way you could just basically close the door and say, ‘forget it,’” Martin said.

While the restrictions of the pandemic have led to over a 50% hit to Island Soul’s profits, Martin has managed to maintain a positive outlook on the situation. 

“I always tell people: My goal is not to think about how it could be, because it’s not. I have to deal with what it is, and we’ve done the best that we can,” Martin said. 

While many have given in to the temptation of delivery apps, Martin decided it wasn’t the best route for Island Soul, due to the massive cut of the profits that the apps take from the businesses. Instead, they have set up a way to order ahead on their website for pick up. They even sell cocktails to go and are offering Thanksgiving meals

“We just keep swinging the bat until you get the home run, but you just have to keep swinging. And that’s what we’re doing,” Martin said. 

You can place an order for pick up on Islands Soul’s website

Lil Red’s Takeout and Catering 

A long-time entrepreneur and a disposition for being his own boss, Red began his business cooking and selling food out of his station wagon. He then began catering events out of his kitchen. In 2017, he started Lil Red’s Takeout and Catering in South Seattle.

“The opportunity arose to have a brick and mortar, and I jumped on it,” Red said. 

Three years later, Red is still selling his wildly popular Jamaican BBQ and soul cuisine at 4225 Rainier Ave South. 

Lil Red’s Takeout. (Photo by Susan Fried)

Lil Red’s Takeout, as its name implies, is primarily a takeout location, managing to avoid the impact of limits on indoor dining. Still, COVID-19 managed to hit during graduation, wedding, and family reunion season, heavily impacting the catering aspect of his business.

Known for a fun, lively environment and classic comfort food, the community support and loyal customer base have allowed Lil Red to continue. 

“People like our food, so people want to come out and support and, you know, they want to eat,” Red said. “[People] like our atmosphere, they like what we do. So we really appreciate the support.”

Ultimately, the biggest thing you can do for restaurants is to eat their food. It comes down to showing up for restaurants and continuing to eat as we all attempt to navigate the pandemic. Lil Red will continue to provide comfort food for the community. 

“I hope that everybody’s been enjoying what we’re doing, and we’re going to keep doing it for as long as we’re allowed to.” 

You can order through Grubhub and Uber Eats or go in and pick up your order. 

Chamidae Ford is currently a senior journalism major at the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle.

Featured image: Emma’s BBQ in Hillman City (Photo by Susan Fried)