Tam Nguyen owns the Tamarind Tree restaurant in Seattle’s Little Saigon neighborhood. The menu features dishes like crispy coconut rice cakes with shrimp, and of course pho, which has been part of the fabric of Seattle culture since the 1980s.
"Pho fills you up and make you feel so warm, so homey,” Nguyen said, “Nowadays, the non-Vietnamese embrace that as well.”
But according to Nguyen that feeling is now at risk. The reason is increased restaurant costs for rent, wages, taxes and food. That all adds up: for Nguyen, to an extra $40,000 or $50,000 per month.
And it’s an issue this year in the Seattle mayor’s race, because costs are a concern for lots of restaurant owners in Seattle right now. Rents and prices have skyrocketed, particularly since the last recession.
Commercial restaurant rents, for example, shot up nearly 50 percent in Seattle in just the past year.
Both of the candidates running for mayor this year are hearing a lot of stories like Nguyen’s.
"It's an issue for business owners, for their employees," former U.S. attorney Jenny Durkan said. "And talking to business owners, it's clear that our small businesses are really struggling and feeling the pinch of the growth in Seattle right now."
Durkan wants developers to build more affordable spaces for small businesses. In exchange, the city could grant them zoning height increases. The city's already doing something like that with affordable housing.
"It is one of the key places where women and minorities and immigrants can start that business, build the future not just for them and their families, but for their whole neighborhoods and communities," Durkan said.
Durkan’s opponent, urban planner Cary Moon called Durkan's ideas the “band aid” approach. She calls for more progressive B&O taxes and more dramatic changes to the Seattle economy, "like employee-shared ownership plans and co-ops because, increasingly, access to entrepreneurship is harder and harder for folks to reach."
Meanwhile, Nguyen said costs keep going up: "Oh, we barely pay ourselves. We have three different siblings working with me. Their wages are sometimes lower than our servers."
On top of that, there's the gnawing uncertainty. Nguyen used to have a lease, but he said these days the building owner will no longer renew it. Nguyen said that's because eventually the owner plans to re-develop the entire property. And when that happens, Nguyen's not sure he's going to be able to afford to pay the rent or afford to stay open.
So, why not just charge more? Nguyen said he's already raised prices: in the case of pho, to $8 or $9 a bowl. "I don't know who would pay for a $12 bowl of pho, or a $15 bowl of pho," he said.
So for now, Nguyen says the future just feels uncertain for him, for his family, and for the customers who depend on them as costs and prices keep going up:
“Are we serving our community? Are we serving the folks that eat a bowl of pho when they feel they need to eat? When their body needs to be treated?”