Beer and popcorn to return to WA ferries

Of all the bars and restaurants that have recently reopened, one establishment has remained conspicuously sealed off: the Washington ferry galleys.

Beer and popcorn lovers everywhere, rejoice, as on-board ship service will be returning soon.

Two years after the once bustling watering holes for commuters, tourists and boaters went quiet, Sodexo-run cafeterias are set to open this month – possibly as early as next week. Ferry spokesman Ian Sterling said it’s been a long time; Few topics are discussed more often by customers than the timing of clam chowder’s return, he said.

“For us it’s a sign of progress and I hope it’s the same for customers,” Sterling said on Saturday.

Some caveats are in order. The rollout will be staggered, meaning only five boats on four routes will be served: Anacortes, Bainbridge, Bremerton and Edmonds. Only one of the two boats between Seattle and Bainbridge will have its kitchen open, meaning passengers will have a 50% chance of snagging a frozen treat. The catering service will open on two out of four boats departing from Anacortes.

The Edmonds-Kingston and Seattle-Bremerton routes are both single-boat services due to staffing, which means passengers may have a long wait to board, but can at least look forward to an IPA or chardonnay a time they do finally begin their passage.

“We want to make sure it’s well staffed and our staff are properly trained,” said Paul Pettis, Sodexo’s communications director.

The Kitsap Sun first reported on the return of catering services.

The kitchen service is a symbiotic relationship: Washington State Ferries provides the space and the contractor, Sodexo, provides the service, including the vending machines.

Dining halls closed in early 2020, along with most of the rest of the service industry, and have not reopened since. One reason, ferry spokesman Justin Fujioka said, is that the boats cut off their water supply during the early days of the pandemic. Turning it back on took some effort; the water sat so long on most boats that the system needed a thorough cleaning. Fujioka said water is now flowing over all but two boats.

Pettis said they were working with the local union to calculate wages and bring back employees who may have been laid off when the galleys closed.

The past few years have been tough for the state’s largest ferry system. Staffing shortages, along with construction on Colman Dock in downtown Seattle, have caused chronic delays and cancellations. The Bremerton/Seattle and Edmonds/Kingston routes will remain in single-boat service until further notice, Sterling said.

Ridership, while trending up, is still below pre-pandemic levels. In the first three months of 2022, 3.26 million people boarded a ferry – a slight increase from 2021, but still 32% less than the same period in 2019.

The state legislature spent $4 billion on ferries in its last session, mostly to bring in new boats and convert existing ferries to electric hybrids.

It remains to be seen when the labor issues and awkward service will subside. But in the meantime, at least the passengers can drink a beer along the way.

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