Beer and popcorn to return to state ferries

Among all the bars and restaurants that have recently reopened their doors, one establishment has remained conspicuously cordoned off: the galleys on Washington’s ferries.

Beer and popcorn lovers of the world, rejoice, for service aboard the boats will soon return.

Two years since the once-bustling watering holes for commuters, tourists and pleasure cruisers went quiet, the Sodexo-run cafeterias are set to open this month — possibly as soon as next week. Ian Sterling, spokesperson for the ferries, said it’s been a long time coming; few topics are more commonly broached by customers than the timeline for clam chowder’s return, he said.

“For us, this is a sign of progress and hopefully the same to customers,” Sterling said Saturday, April 9.

Some caveats are in order. The rollout will be phased, meaning just five boats on four routes will see service: Anacortes, Bainbridge, Bremerton and Edmonds. Just one of the two boats between Seattle and Bainbridge will open its galley, meaning passengers will have a 50 percent chance of snagging a frozen treat. Food service will open on two out of four boats leaving Anacortes.

The Edmonds-to-Kingston and Seattle-to-Bremerton routes are both down to one-boat services because of staffing, meaning riders may have a long wait to board, but can at least look forward to an IPA or chardonnay once they finally do begin their passage.

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

The Kitsap Sun first reported on food service returning.

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

Dining areas closed in early 2020, along with most of the rest of the service industry, and haven’t reopened since. One reason, said ferry spokesperson Justin Fujioka, is that the boats shut off their water supply during the early days of the pandemic. Turning it back on has taken some effort; the water sat for so long on most boats that the system needed thorough cleaning. Fujioka said the water is now flowing on all but two boats.

Pettis said they’ve been working with the local union to hash out wages and bring back employees who may have been laid off when the galleys shut down.

It’s been a difficult few years for the state’s largest ferry system. Staffing shortages, as well as construction on Colman Dock in downtown Seattle, have caused chronic delays and cancellations. Both the Bremerton/Seattle and Edmonds/Kingston routes will remain on one-boat service until further notice, said Sterling.

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 percent lower than during the same period in 2019.

The state Legislature dedicated $4 billion toward the ferries in its most recent session, mostly to bring on new boats and convert existing ferries to hybrid-electric.

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