Alma Mater and the impact of COVID-19

The impacts of COVID-19 on the Tacoma community is apparent at a glance. Streets are nearly empty, schools and universities like UW Tacoma remain mostly shut and businesses continue to struggle in the face of these challenging circumstances. Of those businesses, restaurants perhaps have it among the worse. 

There have already been closures of big names in the community. Pacific Grill and The Swiss being two of the most notable restaurants near UWT. After being in operation for 15 and 27 years respectively, both were forced to close. However, the hospitality industry takes many forms, so the Ledger reached out to other local restaurants to see how they have been weathering the storm. 

The Ledger was able to speak with The Patio at Alma Mater. The Patio is a recently opened, outdoor seating restaurant. While some may be familiar with Alma Mater’s cafe or their bar — Honey and Matriarch — The Patio is their primary focus while the other two are closed through the pandemic. It is also worth noting that there are other businesses operating under the Alma Mater umbrella, such as a recording studio and concert venue, all of which are currently closed along with the bar and cafe. 

Alma Mater’s Executive Director, Lisa Fruichantie, offered her feelings regarding some of the current challenges facing the hospitality industry. She discussed a variety of topics ranging from financial support, recent layoffs and the potential improvements to the industry that could come from the pandemic. 

“We did have to make hard decisions like most businesses, furloughing a majority of our staff for instance,” said Fruichantie regarding the initial struggles of the pandemic. “My goal was to re-open our restaurant to the public in a safe way. I consolidated Honey and Matriarch as two separate restaurants and we launched The Patio. Now, staff from both former teams work as a collective and we made many internal leadership changes. Currently, our permanent layoffs are exclusive to those who formerly worked for our venue. I can’t wait until we can safely reopen and bring back as many of our staff as possible.” 

Fruichantie also explained their situation financially:

“Alma Mater is in a unique position in which our parent company, the WEND foundation, was able to support us financially when the pandemic first hit.” She added, “Fortunately, because of WEND, our building facility costs were covered. We are so grateful.”

The support of her company also has allowed their group to delve into support for the community through this difficult time. 

“I had made some tough decisions in deciding how to steer our organization in the middle of not only a global wide pandemic but also during the largest social movement of our time,” Fruichantie said. “When I was asked to step in as interim director, we had already begun one massive shift in transforming our kitchen to serve philanthropically by providing three meals a day for approximately 60 youth at the Beacon shelter. After I took over as director, this is work that I expanded on.” 

“With this new model, now includes a restaurant coalition with local POC owned 3UILT, and our partnerships with The People’s Assembly, Rainbow Center’s Caring with Pride Program and Bethlehem Family Shelter has allowed us to facilitate 1070 meals a week for some of our most vulnerable and marginalized community members here locally in Tacoma,” she added.

On top of the aforementioned philanthropic pursuits, Fruitchantie believes there is a positive change that will come out of the end of the pandemic. 

“I do in fact see a silver lining.” Fruichantie said, “As an organization, only two years into operation before the pandemic, we used this opportunity to greatly improve, redirect and shift a huge amount of our internal organization, leadership model and processes. It allowed us to lay the foundational groundwork for a full ‘reset’ of our organization. That in itself is a huge positive change. For myself, moving from serving as an interim director to now the permanent position of executive director, I am using this time for further development, future strategic planning and industry changes.”