“I looked back and thought about what I had said to my managers those first few days: guys, this could go on for 3 weeks!” Tim Niver and I had a good laugh on that one.
Last week we hit the six month mark since that crazy, crazy weekend in March when the world of MSP restaurants came to a screeching halt. Man, we were babies in the woods. No idea what was going to happen, how we were going to handle it, what it all really meant. And as we tried to predict what the next evolution would look like, the only real thing we could count on (which anyone in the universe can actually count on) was change.
So I spent the last week speaking, both officially and privately, to certain types of industries: owners, suppliers, workers, managers, the optimists, the downtrodden, the panicked and the resolute. It is clear to almost everyone in the industry that we are at a crossroads right now.
Openings and closings and PPP
It is telling that one of the most clicked pages on our site is the one listing all the restaurants closed since the pandemic. It is a difficult fact that it continues to be updated. There have certainly been some pretty big heart breakers and innovative drivers (The Bachelor Farmer, Octo Fishbar, In Bloom) from our culinary scene that have disappeared. But what’s worse, I think, are the places that are already ghosts, sitting quietly, that will never come back. Some aren’t ready to officially commit to the final verdict and I don’t put them on this list until I’m sure. But there is more to what we realize.
And even. There is always news of restaurateurs taking the leap and opening new businesses. Justin Sutherland and Brian Ingram launched two restaurants (The Gnome and Cantina over a wood fire) together for the past six months. Burger dive and The Lynhall open from the second locations. New shiny counters like Nixta, BAD Wingz, and Baby Zito spear ! And ambitious projects that are in preparation, like that of Ann Kim Sooki and Mimi, Vinai by Yia Vang and Petite Leon by Jorge Guzman are still advancing.
Of course, these are all things to celebrate, it’s a tough party to attend. New debts have a different timeline than the established places that struggle for their existence. A lot of people in the industry believe this gives us the eaters a false sense of security. That everything’s OK. When really, it isn’t.
Overall, I heard how the P3 really saved a lot of restaurants. But that for many, if not most, they no longer have those funds and are now tapping into SBA loans and the latest savings in hopes of spreading until the next stimulus arrives. But have you noticed that it’s not as high a priority in Washington as it used to be (a lot is happening, yes)? The Coalition of Independent Restaurants, which formed during this pandemic, is pushing hard to Restaurant law. The back-up plan would be of great help to small businesses and appears to have a lot of support from big names, but it is possible that Congress will leave the chambers without passing anything before the election. To this we say …
Winter is coming.
A good patio season clearly saved our bacon this year, and restaurants will be stretching it out longer than usual with heaters and blankets and cuddly hot drinks. But there is no escaping the Minnesota winter and all that it means for the volume of business. We all know that, and they all know that there will come a time when dining out will stop (usually when you put a plate of hot rigatoni on a table and it turns freezing cold before the third bite). Food trucks will tell you, when the wind starts blowing, people don’t leave the skyways (remember when there were people in the skyways?) And the ice bars are fun, we’ll see a lot of that action this years, but they may not replace a busy patio.
So the biggest question haunting restaurants right now: will people come in?
There is no more Friday night. It used to be that you could count on a rolling bar crowd of after-work happy hour goers trying to waste their week. This would make the first few weekends of bar or gathering for dates and dinner easier, and on a good night’s sleep you could set tables with a few turns and balance those quiet Mondays and Tuesdays. That vibe is almost gone, and now people have Zoom happy hours at home, they have to make reservations, there are fewer tables, no big group parties, and no bar scrambling. For the most part, people come home early. Things have changed.
With so much uncertainty in the air, with elections, with schooling, with the economy, with confused science, with contradictory reports, with a growing number of cases, with strong emotions on all fronts, the will people want to go out and sit inside? And if they do, can a restaurant keep its staff safe? Or earn enough money with limited capacity to keep everyone working?
Some think not. Alex and Margo Roberts have previously announced plans to close indoor dining rooms at Alma on November 2 and only come back to take out for the foreseeable future. They don’t see a way to make the math work, in a way that keeps staff, customers, and restaurants full enough to keep the business safe. After doing everything he could to make his patio life a great experience, Remy Pettus found that was not enough and chose to close Bardo Last week. Lord Fletcher decided to close for the winter, knowing that this is their slowest time anyway.
But most think yes. More think that not only will people want to go out, but they will need to go out. After a summer of battling masks and seating arrangements on terraces, restaurants are starting to speak louder again about the protocols they use to make patrons feel safe. From air purifiers to UV light technology kiosks at the door, they invest in great innovations to make you feel comfortable inside.
Because only the few restaurants think they can spend the winter take out on their own, and that route usually means eliminating staff again. Tim Niver’s two restaurants have remained closed for indoor dining since the closure, with neither having a significant presence on the patio. They do well with loyal take-out fans, but according to Niver, “our time is up. We’re not going to survive this, so we have to make a change.” Niver and his team will open Saint-Dinette and by Mucci for indoor meals, although not at 50% capacity, it is more likely to be at 30% capacity. “And our tables will be pretty much 10 feet apart. But we’re going to change that and make it more intimate and more of an experience. We’re going to make fun tasting menus and different types of meals.” So if we can’t get our old Friday nights back, we can have something a little different that fuels the need with the old magic, just shot in a new way.
Work 3.0, in this expensive and shiny new building, will finally open an indoor restaurant after doing strictly patio and take-out. The team has continued to innovate over the past six months with take-out and meal kits, a market, and then patio layouts at Pig Ate My Pizza and the Cantina on the roof. But they know that if they want to make it through the winter, they have to keep moving forward. Their upstairs Skybar opens as an 8-course lounge bar called Flight club, and the main dining room will open for just 18 people per night to enjoy a tasting menu of over 15 90-minute courses. The first tasting menu will be called New hope.
And let’s be clear, this continual innovation and reinvention, the sway and weave that these people in the industry go through? It’s exhausting. And then: add the audience, and all their emotions, that you, as a hospitable, are supposed to appease. Like your job.
The blame and the long game
Many industry people I’ve spoken to have said that they don’t really see us getting back to normal until August 2021 (i.e. if a working vaccine is really ready for distribution from here April). Can our independent restaurants last that long? It will really depend on what happens this winter. The big boost would be another PPP stimulus that would get many people through spring (contact your rep and tell them to get up). But it will also depend on the impact schools have on the number of cases and whether people start trading while staying at home to minimize the chances of another foreclosure. Take out will be important, don’t doubt that for a second. But it’s still a game of guessing what it all looks like in January.
One of the hardest things I’ve seen and felt personally, as we all try to find our way through this with maximum health and minimum damage, is the propensity to become political (I know, it’s an election year, but come to). It’s hard to see comment threads using the heartbreak of the hospitality industry to burn their chosen effigies, when many admit to having no skin in the game. I’ll close with a comment from a bartender I know that I respect then that she explained what many think:
The government has not closed this restaurant. Or the others. Do you know why restaurants are dropping like flies? The extra cost is incredible. The cost of labor is ridiculous. The number of guests who want free bullshit for being born or because their well-done steak is chewy is staggering. Food / drink waste and compositions are killing us. Want to help keep these restaurants open? Go. Spend money locally. Pay full price. Treat the staff well. Point. For every time you go to Applebee instead of the cafe / grocery store down the street that belongs to your neighbors, you are helping to break your nails.
So stop blaming politicians and start looking inside for what you could and still can do to save us.