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Campus closures affect Vendors Row restaurants

Less on-campus traffic and late communication from Western Washington University have created hardships for local food vendors

Vendors operating outside the Viking Union in Bellingham, Wash. on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. Now that classes are back in person, operations have continued. // Photo by Annabelle Stefanoff

On Western Washington University’s campus, the businesses on Vendors Row experienced heightened challenges from COVID-19 campus closures over the past two years. 

Vendors Row is an area outside the Viking Union for local restaurants to rent space on a daily, weekly or quarterly schedule. Students, staff and community members can frequent Kebab Casual, Burrito King, QQ Li’s and India Grill Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Kebab Casual began operating only a few weeks before the initial shutdown in March 2020. They reopened their Vendors Row location in September 2021.

Kebab Casual operates as a takeout only restaurant, so the COVID-19 pandemic had a positive impact on their business as a whole, despite their Vendors Row location shutting down.

The biggest hurdle that the Vendors Row location faced was a lack of communication from the university.

“We were never really sure if Vendors Row was going to be open or not,” said Jude Phillips, the Vendors Row Kebab Casual manager. “We kinda got late notice on what was happening during that.”

Businesses on Vendors Row were informed of the university’s closure through email on the afternoon of Jan. 10, which was the first day they had returned for the quarter. This short notice was surprising for Phillips and the rest of the staff at Kebab Casual.

“The other booths at Vendors Row also seemed surprised by that,” Phillips said. “Communication has been kind of iffy overall, which is the main thing I’ve noticed.”

For other vendors, there have been bigger financial struggles.

Burrito King, a local Mexican restaurant, got its start on Western’s campus and has held a spot on Vendors Row for over a decade. 

“I was working for Dawson Construction to remodel Miller Hall in 2010,” said Ruben Delagarza, Burrito King co-owner. “We would go to Vendors Row and eat at QQ Li's, then one day I looked around and realized there wasn’t any Mexican food. Then a light bulb turned on.”

When asked about how the COVID-19 campus closures affected business, Delagarza said that Burrito King faced challenges.

“It did affect us quite a bit,” Delagarza said. “We get quite a lot of sales at Western. The students and the staff really appreciate us being there.”

Guy Occhiogrosso, the president and CEO of the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the entire hospitality industry has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Specifically for restaurants, it’s been hard,” Occhiogrosso said. “The retail business model has had to constantly pivot through the pandemic by changing expectations, regulations and even innovations.”

Greg McBride, the associate director of facilities and services at the Viking Union, provided more context concerning how the university handled the closure and their business with Vendors Row restaurants. 

“In talking with our staff what I hear is the vendors, like a lot of people, have both an understanding and some frustration by the situations created by COVID-19,” McBride said in an email.

Western reimbursed a portion of rent to vendors for the three-week campus closure because of the decrease in students and staff in the area.

As the pandemic continues, restaurants are learning to adapt and customers are learning to consume their favorite foods in ways that make them feel safe and comfortable.

“I would say proceed with enthusiasm, and proceed with caution,” Occhiogrosso said when asked if he has any advice for those hesitant to dine out right now. “Information is power.”

Annabelle Stefanoff

Annabelle Stefanoff (she/her) is majoring in Political Science and Economics and triple minoring in Spanish, news/ed journalism and honors interdisciplinary studies. When not reporting, she enjoys undertaking multi-day baking projects and reading a good book. 

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