Small business owners face large numbers of Amazon workers missing for the rest of the year

For many small businesses built on a working Amazon customer base in South Lake Union and Denny Regrade, their absence for the rest of the year could be an existential threat.

It is as if the surrounding neighborhoods one of the densest urban headquarters in America were sucked a decade in a few months, in an earlier time about 50,000 Well-paid Amazon workers were streaming every day, having morning coffee or going to the gym for a sweat before work, swarming the streets in search of lunch and gathering around happy hour .

Sales have plummeted, but for the most part the rent is still due.

Amazon has allowed its corporate employees to work from home since early March, although some choose to work in its offices or have roles that require it. The number that arrives each day varies, a spokesperson said.

The extension of the home work policy by the company this The week through January 8 upsets the already precarious coronavirus survival strategies that neighboring small businesses have concocted with a mix of loans, grants and rent relief (including from Amazon itself) and operations radically overhauled.

“There is no dynamism, no energy and no livelihood without Amazon employees,” said Di, who helps run his family’s two restaurants near the headquarters buildings. ‘business. She asked that her family name not be used. (“It’s a painful subject to bring to the public attention and puts us in a very vulnerable position,” she explained.)

She pointed out Tom Douglas’ decision to close two restaurants frequented by Amazon employees. “If such a famous restaurant group is having trouble, imagine small business owners,” she said.

Mala Satay in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood closed in March and reopened this month, but business has gone down significantly without regular Amazon customers. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Di’s parents, Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the United States in the 1980s, both now in their sixties, overcame more than a little adversity. They opened Mala Satay on Fairview Avenue during the snowstorms of 2019, but quickly developed a steady crowd of Amazon coders and corporate workers having lunch. They closed temporarily in March as sales evaporated, and to protect their health, they reopened in early July.

Local residents and construction workers returned in droves. Grants from Amazon and the City of Seattle have also helped, but without Amazon’s business there isn’t enough business to justify the cost of running for lunch, Di said.

Business at the Meekong Bar in Belltown is also suffering, as the coronavirus pandemic prevents many people from working from home.  Landlords have requested rent relief from their landlord.  (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Business at the Meekong Bar in Belltown is also suffering, as the coronavirus pandemic prevents many people from working from home. Landlords have requested rent relief from their landlord. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

The family is examining whether a dinner service makes sense, while also adjusting operations at their other location, Meekong Bar in Belltown, as the growing number of COVID-19 cases has recently driven sales there. They reopened Meekong Bar in April, hoping to generate enough income to cover their rent at both locations, forgoing any wages for the family. “It was definitely wishful thinking,” she said, adding that they have pleaded with landlords for rent relief and are still awaiting their decisions.

Jessica Notman, owner of Emerald City Pilates, had to lay off her four instructors who gave individual lessons in her 500-square-foot studio on Fifth Avenue. After 10 years in business, the last five just a few blocks from the headquarters of the business and tech empire, she has a loyal following – about half of whom are Amazon employees or their spouses. They kept coming to her, maintaining enough business to support her as a sole proprietor.

Jessica Notman, owner of Emerald City Pilates, right, works with Elena Cheung at the studio Thursday.  Notman lives in the neighborhood and has noticed the void without Amazon's usual crowd.  (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Jessica Notman, owner of Emerald City Pilates, right, works with Elena Cheung at the studio Thursday. Notman lives in the neighborhood and has noticed the void without Amazon’s usual crowd. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

Notman received a grant from Amazon – part of some $ 11 million in rent relief and grants the company says it gave to 900 little ones businesses around its offices in Seattle and downtown Bellevue – as well as federal coronavirus relief loans. (An Amazon spokesperson said its grants had all been allocated; rent relief to tenants in its buildings was extended for up to a fifth month.)

“I would sweat more with Amazon not coming back if I hadn’t had these,” Notman said. “I escaped.”

She watched the pandemic worsen in recent weeks and was already bracing for a extension of work-from-home policies, confirmed by Amazon on Wednesday.

“It didn’t really surprise me,” she said. “Now everyone realizes it’s going to be a long game. … I am already in this Amazon state of mind which has not returned for a long time. ”

With operations adjusted to meet reopening requirements – masks, temperature controls, hazard disclosure forms – she envisions winter and is exploring ways to keep the studio at a comfortable temperature with the windows open to the fresh air.

She lives in the neighborhood and notices the void as she walks her dogs, Tucker and Freckles, Pomeranian and Awesome Pyrenees, respectively.

In the absence of Amazon workers, people who are homeless or struggling with mental health issues are more visible. “It’s a little wilder in that sense, which isn’t the most comfortable feeling,” Notman said. “There are definitely areas where I’m more careful than before with fewer people.”

While the streets looked desolate in the spring, the growing number of area residents stepped forward with the onset of summer weather, said Curt Archambault, who has lived with his wife in a condo at 2200 Westlake for about 11 years.

The development of this project, with its Whole Foods Market on the ground floor and the Tony Pan Pacific Hotel, marked the start of a new era for a neighborhood that previously housed former warehouses and commercial laundries with parking on the street plentiful and few places to eat. .

There are around 12,000 residences in South Lake Union and Regrade, housing around 21,500 people, according to an analysis of commercial real estate brokers and 2018 census figures. Amazon says about 15% of its corporate employees live in the region. same zip code where they work.

Archambault said the quiet of the streets this spring reminded him of the neighborhood when he first moved in. “I remember what it was like – limited options for meals and other activities,” he said. “I don’t want it to go back to those days.”

Archambault, who also sits on the board of directors of the South Lake Union Chamber of Commerce, said that while he and his wife are wary of eating inside, they frequent local restaurants for take out, marching for the ‘get themselves whenever possible in order to earn more money. goes directly to businesses rather than delivery services.

“As a resident, I feel obligated to help them as much as possible,” he said.

Archambault said Amazon is working with the chamber and is well aware of the challenges of extending work from home to local businesses. A company spokesperson said Amazon is offering social media training for small businesses, marketing its services to residents of nearby residential buildings, and testing a free restaurant delivery service, in addition to financial support.

Amazon sees tenants of stores and restaurants in their buildings “as amenities, non-profit centers,” said Marc Chatalas, who co-owns local Cactus restaurants with his brother Bret. While many tech employers offer free, often lavish, food to employees in corporate cafeterias, Amazon doesn’t, but instead builds spaces for restaurants and cafes in its buildings.

Cactus opened in the heart of Amazon's South Lake Union headquarters in 2011. “The outlook for 2020 was positive,” said co-owner Marc Chatalas.  Now,

Cactus opened in the heart of Amazon’s South Lake Union headquarters in 2011. “The outlook for 2020 was positive,” said co-owner Marc Chatalas. Now, “we just hang on, hoping to live to fight another day.” (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

The Chatalas brothers opened their site in the heart of Amazon’s South Lake Union headquarters, now one of six in the region, in November 2011. In the early years, Marc Chatalas estimated that 95% of their business came from the business. After surviving the disruption of the construction boom in the neighborhood and with increased sales to people living nearby, “the outlook for 2020 was positive,” he said. Now, “we just hang on, hoping to live to fight another day.”

As COVID-19 ravaged the restaurant industry, Amazon has “become the gold standard for what it means to be a collaborative and supportive owner,” Chatalas said, adding that his business has benefited from both a grant and of a rent reduction from Amazon. “Unfortunately, very few owners offer meaningful help to small businesses, and the impact will be more dramatic than I think anyone thinks. These same owners are going to have to rent their spaces because we are all going to go bankrupt.

Seattle Times business reporter Katherine Khashimova Long contributed to this report.

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