How This Business Owner Converted Her Dance Venue to a Socially Distanced Restaurant

This ballroom-studio owner in Seattle has always been resourceful, operating a restaurant and creating a popular date-night experience for her clients taking lessons in social dance. But the pandemic is stretching her creative muscles to the max as she tries to preserve both her studio and restaurant businesses until her customers can safely return.

No one can accuse Hallie Kuperman of not exercising her creativity. As the owner of two adjacent businesses in Seattle—Century Ballroom, a spot for social-dance lessons and performances, and a restaurant, The Tin Table—the longtime ballroom-dance instructor has tried nearly every pivot possible to keep both establishments alive during the pandemic. She’s lowered takeout boxes from the second-floor fire escape to the street, converted the dance floor to a socially distant dining experience, added brunch to the menu for the first time, and offered  gourmet picnic baskets for pickup. Nearly every week she’s needed to change her plan of attack.

What she hasn’t done is throw in the towel, even though none of her efforts have so far paid off. “It’s financially not sustainable at all,” admits Kuperman. “But it’s fun, and sitting at home would just kill me.” It’s also a learning opportunity—one that she willingly embraces—and a chance to feel as if she has some purpose when everything else is on hold. “I’ve never been a waitress! But it’s just me and the executive chef,” says Kuperman, who has been helping out as a host, runner and busser on the floor to support the kitchen. “I come and say, ‘Yo, Frank, what are we doing today?’ I get taught every day.”

Dining and Dancing

Since Kuperman took on the lease to her ballroom space 23 years ago, she has always operated two businesses: First, she opened a café connected to the dance studio, which later became The Tin Table. “The two spaces, the studio and the restaurant, are quite different,” she says, “but financially, they gross about the same—about a million a year.” Her reasoning behind combining two seemingly disparate business ventures was simple: “I really enjoy dining and dancing,” says Kuperman. “I wanted a place where you could have a good meal and alcohol and a date night, and it would be fancy—but not in an expensive way.”

Ballroom lessons at Century Ballroom became the “date-night” portion of the evenings Kuperman envisioned. Before the pandemic, dancers would typically commit to five-week sessions of classes in styles like salsa, bachata, tango, the Lindy Hop and West Coast Swing. The studio offered between 25 and 30 classes a week, and Kuperman says about half of the studio’s clientele were people who had never taken ballroom lessons before.

When people stopped going to class in March, Kuperman—like many other business owners—figured the studio and restaurant would shut down for two weeks, tops. “Well, we got through the two weeks, and then the George Floyd protests started happening right outside our doors,” she says. “We felt like we should stay shut down, so we did.”

At the end of May, when Kuperman decided to try reopening The Tin Table, she moved the restaurant’s seating area to Century Ballroom’s expansive ballroom space in order to make social distancing possible while dining. Inside the ballroom, she could fit 16 tables in 4,500 square feet (up from the restaurant’s typical space, which could only fit 10 or so tables). “There are two walls of windows and one wall of fans,” she says. “We have so much light and air in that space, it’s unreal. If you’re not going to eat outside, I can’t think of a better space.”

Though the new dine-in arrangement has occasionally done well, it’s unpredictable, says Kuperman. “Zero people will come in one night, and then we’ll have one night where it’s full. We try to seat people only at windows, and we try to turn those tables more than we normally would,” she says.

Baby (Salsa) Steps

Despite Kuperman’s ability to come up with idea after idea to entice restaurant patrons, her financial situation remains precarious. “Our rent is $47,000 a month,” she says. “I can tell you that I do not make $47,000 worth from picnic baskets. The reason to stay open, honestly, had very little to do with making money. We wanted to stay connected to people and not just shut down.”

Though Kuperman received a Paycheck Protection Program loan for $158,000, which she used to pay her staff and landlord (who offered Kuperman a discounted rent for the summer months), she’s not sure how much longer she can survive without her usual dance lesson revenue and from her public dances, which used to happen in two spaces almost every night of the week.

 In October, in another space in the building, Century Ballroom began offering small-group lessons again—salsa, bachata, swing and line dance—with room for up to five couples at a time. (The Tin Table continues to operate in the ballroom.) Masks are required, and 15 minutes between classes are devoted to sanitizing. “Small, non-rotating partner classes aren’t a moneymaker for us, but it’s a chance for us to get our feet wet,” she says. After a two-week tryout, Kuperman is ready to adjust the schedule and add a couple more classes. “It’s a learning experience, for sure,” she says. “The hardest part is not being able to touch someone and show them what things feel like. But, honestly, it’s a joy to be teaching again.”

Rachel Rizzuto reports on studio business for Dance Teacher and is a third-year MFA student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.