Kris and Karen have an inspiring story. Coming from diverse backgrounds, they found each other, had three children – now in college, high school, and middle school – and she became a citizen. Five years ago, they opened a small café in a strip mall in Kenmore. Kris was an experienced chef with years of restaurant experience but never as an owner/operator. The café was their American dream.
Marilynn and I were among their first customers. To my eye, as a former restaurant owner, it looked vulnerable—nicely done but probably under-financed in a location with almost no foot traffic. On that first visit, the sales rep from Caffe D’arte was training Karen in the art of espresso. We were pleasantly surprised. As a coffee snob I had doubts, but she nailed our lattes and our patronage. It became our go-to espresso stop.
Soon after, we stopped to sample Kris’ food, an eclectic mix of made-from- scratch soups, salads, Cuban pulled pork sandwiches, Vietnamese Banh Mi, lobster Mac ‘n Cheese, and more. Everything was delicious and made with the freshest and best ingredients – Reggiano Parmagiano, Swiss Gruyere, French baguette, farm fresh eggs, crispy lettuce, savory peanut dressing and the like. A high quality operation.
Like most family businesses the keyword is family. The cafe is open seven days a week. Kris does all the cooking, Karen takes care of the dining room, and the kids help with chores in between stints of homework. They tried to hire help, but couldn’t get quality at a price they could afford. “Catch-22.”
Marilynn and I worried about their survival, but for four plus years they’ve managed to keep it going. Early last week, the state ordered all restaurants and other non-essential businesses closed, except for takeout.
Yesterday, we called to order Mac ‘n Cheese, Banh Mi’, and “Warm Puffy Things” (their lightly fried delicate French pastries with whipped cream and confiture)—bypassing Uber Eats and Grub Hub, the delivery services that take a piece of each order.
When we drove up to get our order, Kris brought it out to the car. I asked how he was doing; he told us he was afraid King County would order a complete “lockdown.” Everett, just to the north, ordered one on Friday. Edmonds, to the west, ordered one last night. A pincer movement. He told us it would be difficult to deal with a lockdown but they see themselves as survivors determined to keep serving their customers. I asked about the proposed Federal relief and he laughed. “They’re talking about loans. We can barely make it now. How would we ever be able to pay back a loan?”
I’ve been in the restaurant business. I know how tough it is, how hard the work is, and the stress it can put on a family. The Hodge Podge Cafe is the face of small business vulnerability during the coronavirus pandemic. Marilynn and I have our fingers crossed for Kris and Karen. We need people like them.