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Columbia city’s island soul rum bar & soul shack thriving in wake of coronavirus closures

Island Soul Rum Bar & Soul Shack in the heart of Columbia City sees a significant increase in sales since it reopened in April after the mandated closure of all restaurants, bars and entertainment and recreational facilities.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants across the United States have lost more revenue and jobs than any other industry, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

A survey from the National Restaurant Association in June showed food service lost nearly $120 billion in sales during just the first three months of the pandemic, and—according to Yelp’s latest Local Economic Impact Report, more than 26,000 US restaurants have closed throughout the United States, and 60% of those businesses have shuttered for good.

Lucky for the Rainier Valley, Island Soul Rum Bar & Soul Shack isn’t one of them.

In fact, the longtime family- and Black-owned business in the heart of Columbia City has seen a significant increase in sales since it reopened in April after Gov. Jay Inslee mandated the immediate two-week closure of all restaurants, bars, and entertainment and recreational facilities.

“We’ve been really blessed,” said Island Soul owner and Rainier Valley Community Development Fund (RVCDF) client Theo Martin. “Our regulars have stayed regular and thanks to a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, we were able to re-hire all but two of our entire staff.”

It hasn’t always been that way.

“Before COVID, it had been a tough year for us,” said Martin. “The entire front wall of the restaurant needed new windows since the old ones were cracked and letting in a lot of cold air, but the new ones we ordered didn’t fit and as a result, we had to close down for three months in 2019, which caused a huge financial loss. We finally got the new, sliding windows finished right before the pandemic, and our timing couldn’t have been better.”

The new windows are perfect for serving takeout, delivery and curbside while keeping everyone safe with social distancing and contact-free pick-up. Customers seem happy with the changes.

“Incredibly easy curbside pick-up,” said Yelp commenter Trisha F, and “Glad they’ve been open during COVID and using safety precautions to make sure their customers can come grab their food safely,” said Nicole S.

But it’s not just the remodel—financed by RVCDF—that’s helped Island Soul survive the country’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Restaurant owners like Martin have been forced to adapt quickly by changing menus, points of service, hours, delivery and takeout, etc.

Martin says he was up for the challenge.

“We transitioned from a traditional sit-down bar and restaurant for takeout, delivery and curbside almost overnight,” he said. “Most of the restaurants in our neighborhood stayed closed, but I went out and strung lights all around the restaurant to attract attention and added heavy signage telling folks how to order and keeping them updated on all the changes.”

At first, Martin relied heavily on outside delivery vendors like Door Dash, UberEats and GrubHub, but those services charge 35% and with the restaurant industry already operating on slim margins, so Martin decided to establish his own online ordering system. Once it was up and running, he stopped using outside vendors.

“I’ve learned a lot, and I’m still learning,” says Martin. “I don’t know everything so I use my resources and reach out and ask questions of other business owners all the time.”

Indeed, according to industry experts, brands that are able to develop innovative ways to create and keep revenue flowing will be the ones who will succeed in spite of the many challenges they face.