Lunch is served on the patio of Selby Avenue’s Moscow on the Hill, though tables have been removed to allow for the recommended social distancing. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Sit-down service resumes indoors and out at tables spaced six feet apart

By Carolyn Walkup

Time was running out earlier this month on local restaurateurs whose indoor dining rooms have been closed since March 17 by order of Governor Tim Walz due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As many as half of Minnesota’s hospitality businesses were “looking at closing in the next month or so,” said Hospitality Minnesota spokesperson Ben Wogs­land. “Their bills keep coming. They’re running out of time and out of money.”

Then Walz offered some relief with a new order on June 4 permitting bars and restaurants across the state to resume sit-down service indoors at 50 percent capacity beginning June 10. His earlier order, which took effect on June 1, had allowed sit-down service outdoors only, and that came as a great disappointment to local restaurateurs who after 21/2 months of only takeout and delivery service had been hoping for more.

At least 39 states had allowed restaurants to resume indoor dining at some level prior to June 1, according to Wogs­land. His trade association had been lobbying for similar accommodations in Minnesota. The hospitality industry generates 18 percent of the sales tax revenue received by the state of Minnesota, he said, and if half of the restaurants and resorts in Minnesota should fail, the state would lose about 150,000 jobs.

The decision to allow only outdoor dining in addition to takeout and delivery was made by people who know little about the restaurant industry, according to James Crockarell, president of Madison Equities, which owns eight restaurants in and around downtown St. Paul. “It’s a plan that is doomed to failure,” he said. “Restaurants must be at full capacity to make even modest profits.”

Outdoor service is limited to a maximum of 50 patrons at a time. The state is requiring that all diners, indoors and out, have a reservation, and tables must be spaced at least six feet apart to maintain the proper social distancing. Tables are limited to no more than six patrons when all are from the same household; otherwise the limit is four. Restaurant workers must wear facemasks. Patrons are encouraged to wear facemasks except when they are dining or drinking. Dining areas also must be regularly disinfected.

Madison Equities is keeping its three restaurants in the Park Square Court Building —the Handsome Hog, Public Kitchen + Bar and the Green Lantern—closed for the time being while the building undergoes a $36 million renovation. Meanwhile, it is rebranding its Fitz Restaurant at 173 N. Western Ave. as the Handsome Hog with a new patio in a former parking lot.

Outdoor service is limited to a maximum of 50 patrons at a time. The state is requiring that all diners, indoors and out, have a reservation, and tables must be spaced at least six feet apart to maintain the proper social distancing. Tables are limited to no more than six patrons when all are from the same household; otherwise the limit is four. Restaurant workers must wear facemasks. Patrons are encouraged to wear facemasks except when they are dining or drinking. Dining areas also must be regularly disinfected.

Many restaurants have little or no space for outdoor dining currently. However, the city of St. Paul recently expedited the process for requesting new and expanded outdoor service licenses (see related story on patio and sidewalk cafe restrictions). The city also eliminated some of the fees for such licenses. A May 27 City Council resolution permitted restaurants to apply for temporary street closures, expanded use of the public right-of-way and the use of on-street parking lanes to accommodate more outdoor dining.

The Highland Grill, 771 S. Cleveland Ave., has had only a few tables on the sidewalk out front. Co-owner Stephanie Shimp is hoping the city will let the restaurant set up a few more tables in the parking lane in front of the business and on the sidewalk in front of neighboring businesses. The restaurant continues to offer takeout and delivery service, but the COVID-19 shutdown has taken a big toll on its sales and that of the half dozen other establishments operated by Blue Plate Restaurant Company.

Blue Plate has “laid off more than 500 employees and now has just 26 on the payroll,” Shimp said. “We’re losing thousands of dollars every week.”

“I feel sorry for people who don’t have patios,” said Eugene Liberman, owner of Moscow on the Hill, 371 Selby Ave. Liberman’s patio can seat up to 50 under the new state guidelines. The takeout and delivery business has been “OK,” he said, “but it would have been better if we could have offered our specialty cocktails.” The state has allowed restaurants to sell bottled beer and wine for takeout and delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic, but not hard liquor.

Groveland Tap, 1834 St. Clair Ave., another Blue Plate restaurant, has expanded its sidewalk service by placing tables in the adjacent parking lot.

Shamrock’s Grill and Pub, 995 W. Seventh St., is adding a patio and has been working with the city to place more tables in space now used for parking. However, the outdoor areas do not come close to making up for business lost to the COVID-19 pandemic or to restoring employment to the 80 percent of the staff now out of work, according to co-owner Mike Runyon.

“Fifty diners doesn’t do anything for us,” Runyon said prior to the governor’s latest order. “We still have to pay for all our utilities and staff and to plan food orders for how many people might show up. It’s scary. But we’re optimistic. Sometimes optimism is what keeps you going.”

Outdoor dining is also coming to Mancini’s Char House, the long-standing restaurant at 531 W. Seventh St. Mancini’s has spruced up a little-used patio in the back and added tables in a portion of the vast parking lot that is next to the patio. Converting a large restaurant and lounge that hosted countless private parties to a small patio operation has not been easy, according to co-owner Pat Mancini. In addition to creating a new employee operations manual, he planted flowers throughout the patio and installed a giant canvas awning over the patio to keep out the rain.

Mendoberri Cafe & Wine Bar chef and owner Robert Ulrich has “a bit of a patio” at his Mendota Heights establishment and is in the process of finishing a large patio at his new Foodsmith Pub on Smith Avenue in West St. Paul, which he opened just a week before COVID-19 shut it down. Ulrich is glad he has been able to rehire almost all of his laid-off staff. “I look at this situation as the glass is half full,” he said.

On Grand Avenue, Tavern on Grand has no space for patio service, but has continued to offer takeout service. Across the street, Dixie’s on Grand, Emmett’s Public House and Saji-Ya have opened their existing patio and placed additional umbrella tables in the adjacent parking lot for more outdoor dining, according to co-owner John Wolf. Just 15 percent of the former staff has been working at the three restaurants this spring, he added.

Pajarito, 605 W. Seventh St., has no outdoor dining area and no plans to offer one, according to owner Steve Hesse. However, the contemporary Mexican eatery is expanding its takeout offerings from family-style meals to smaller a la carte orders as well, and Hesse hopes that will boost revenue, which he said is down about 67 percent.

“The neighborhood is helping us a lot,” said Hesse. “Every little bit helps.”

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