Like many vendors at Pike Place Market in Seattle, Scott Chang isn't sure when business will resume its pre-COVID normal.
True, this summer brought welcome crowds of tourists and locals to the open-air Seattle landmark. Sales at See Lee Gardens, the flower business owned by Chang's family, are nearly back where they were before the pandemic shuttered the market's picturesque warren of stalls and shops.
But there's another, more somber reason for See Lee's rebound: Several competing flower vendors haven't come back to the market, or are only there a few days a week. They now sell at other outlets that don't require the long commute into downtown Seattle.
Even Chang, for the first time, is selling some of his flowers elsewhere, partly as a hedge against future COVID-related disruptions.
"We're never going to quit Pike Place," says Chang, 36, of the place that has hosted his family business since the 1980s. But the pandemic "was a big eye-opener that we have to look for other venues."
Fifty years after Pike Place Market was nearly razed in the name of progress, the sprawling institution faces another, even more complex nemesis.
Although many of the market's more than 500 businesses saw solid sales this summer, visitor numbers are still below their 2019 levels. Many vendors and farmers are still on reduced hours, and dozens haven't returned or are squarely on the fence about coming back.
Though most of the market's 222 restaurants, shops and other brick-and-mortar tenants are back, just 69 of 96 farmers and 147 of 186 crafters had returned as of Oct. 6, market officials said. All told, the market's business community is still down by around 15% from 2019.
"It truly is up in the air right now," says Jim Johnson, owner of Olympia-based Johnson Berry Farm, a 22-year market stalwart that hasn't been back since last fall.
Even many of those vendors who have made it back did so by shifting how — and sometimes where — they do business as they prepare for their second pandemic winter.
Collectively, it points to changes for an iconic, eclectic retail community that was facing challenges before COVID, including labor shortages and competition from online retailers and from a proliferation of farmers markets in virtually every town and neighborhood.
Although Pike Place Market remains the region's go-to source for a fully immersive "meet the producer" experience, "we can't live on it alone," says Mary Bacarella, executive director of the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority (PDA), which owns and manages the 9-acre, 14-building complex. The market, Bacarella, "has to adapt."
Revenue for the PDA, which charges some tenants a percentage of retail sales, fell from a record $22.6 million in 2019 to $13.2 million in 2020, leading to cost-cutting and layoffs of 15% of its staff.
The PDA offered tenants $3.7 million in rental assistance. The market's fundraising arm, the Pike Place Market Foundation, offered nearly $700,000 in small-business grants. Paycheck Protection Program loans helped.
Individual businesses, meanwhile, came up with their own adaptations. At the Sound View Cafe, Alex Amon, whose family purchased the place almost 30 years ago, completely re-engineered the menu, replacing many complicated higher-end items with simpler selections that "were more cost-efficient for us."
Like retailers everywhere, many market vendors also found ways to rely less on face-to-face sales. But some vendors also found ways to reduce their reliance on the market itself.
"To help pick up the slack" in sales, Holmquist Hazelnut Orchards stepped up sales at 16 other regional farmers markets, many of which were thriving even as Pike Place struggled, said co-owner Richard Holmquist.
For some of the market's older vendors, the pandemic was simply a good moment to retire. Vickie Clark Rafael, a 66-year-old jeweler in Shoreline, has operated a day stall for more than 40 years. Though she hasn't returned since the pandemic struck, she had planned to stay on until 70, but is now unsure.
"This whole COVID reality has made things so challenging to decide what to do," she says.