Restaurant patrons embrace return of sit-down service—outdoors anyway

By Carolyn Walkup

Spray bottles of disinfectant and bleach sit on the bar next to the beer taps. Uniformed bartenders and wait staff are clad in facemasks of various styles and colors. Old recordings of NBA basketball games, with the bleachers full of fans, stream from wide­screen TVs on the wall.

This was the new normal in eating and drinking establishments across the Villager area in the days following Governor Tim Walz’s relaxation of restrictions on indoor dining and drinking in Minnesota’s bars and restaurants. Last week during happy hour at Bennett’s Chop & Railhouse, 1305 W. Seventh St., about a dozen patrons spaced themselves around the bar, leaving plenty of empty stools as the new law requires to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Several people, apparently Bennett’s regulars, greeted each other with smiles but without the usual handshakes.

The temperature was 90 degrees outside, so the air conditioning made Bennett’s ultra-clean bar a welcome retreat for enjoying a drink or two along with a serving of meatloaf or walleye sliders. Business at Bennett’s during the previous weekend—the first one with indoor dining—­was nearly nonexistent, according to the manager. Many of Bennett’s vendors had trouble early on providing the usual supply of foods and beverages, which they had cut back on when the restaurant was limited to takeout only.

Haley Pedersen, Dan Whelan and pooch Star enjoyed dinner on the sidewalk cafe outside Bennett’s Chop & Railhouse during happy hour on the evening of June 19. Photos by Brad Stauffer

Paradeise estimates that his business is down about 50 percent this month, although that is better than the 80 percent drop he was experiencing with takeout only before the governor allowed outdoor dining beginning June 1.

Further down West Seventh, Tom Reid’s Hockey City Pub has been filling its 50 patio seats, but few patrons are venturing inside where another 80 seats are available, according to general manager Kathy Gosiger. Patrons are enthusiastic about being able to eat out again, she said, but the lack of televised sports is “really hurting” the business, she said. Tom Reid’s has a new limited menu, which has helped to hold down labor costs. Gosiger expects business to pick up once professional hockey and other live sports return.

Across the street from Tom Reid’s, Patrick McGovern’s Pub is holding its own with a total of 400 seats indoors and outdoors under the state’s current mandate of 50 percent capacity. Owner Patrick Boemer reports sales running about $600,000 behind last year at this time.

 

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“I was concerned about what kind of response we’d get when we reopened,” Boemer said. “We’ve been pleasantly surprised. The majority of our employees are back to work. The only thing missing is the Xcel Energy Center business.”

Boemer installed a brick-paved patio with a retractable roof over a former parking lot 16 years ago. “That has been the best extension of my business,” he said. He recently added more outdoor seating in the back of the building over another former parking lot.

W.A.Frost at the corner of Selby and Western avenues has reopened with a limited small plates and beverage menu. Known for its flower-filled garden patio in season, it has reduced its hours from 3-8:30 p.m. daily. Owners John and Stephanie Laitala Rupp could not be reached for comment; however, a recorded phone message informs patrons that they must make a reservation and secure it with a credit card charge of $25.

Bennett’s Chop & Railhouse co-owner Meghan Bennett confers with servers Cory Bonte and Grace Forester as business picked up during happy hour on June 19.

Francois Paradeise, general manager of French Meadow Bakery and Cafe, 1662 Grand Ave., outlined the challenges of running a restaurant in the year of COVID-19. One of the more difficult problems has been finding a place indoors where customers would like to sit, he said.

The restaurant, which has become a destination for vegetarians and others who crave organic and locally produced food, has a quiet patio in back that seats about 40. The patio and the few tables on the sidewalk in front are customer favorites in nice weather, Paradeise said, but problems arise when it rains.

Paradeise estimates that his business is down about 50 percent this month, although that is better than the 80 percent drop he was experiencing with takeout only before the governor allowed outdoor dining beginning June 1.

Some French Meadow patrons have asked Paradeise why he does not lower menu prices in hopes of attracting more business. To that, he responds, “If you find a landlord that will give me free rent, let me know.” Many of his costs are fixed, he reminds them.

The managers of other Grand Avenue restaurants report similar experiences. It seems everybody wants to sit outdoors in the summer. Among the restaurants faced with this dilemma are Iron Ranger, Colossal Cafe and Dixie’s on Grand.

Dixie’s and the adjacent Emmett’s Public House share some of the same owners, and to reduce labor costs they have closed Emmett’s kitchen and moved some of its favorite dishes to Dixie’s menu, according to partner John Wolf. Wolf has moved tables and chairs from Emmett’s sidewalk cafe to Dixie’s parking lot to expand his outdoor seating. While business has improved from when Dixie’s could do only takeout, “it’s still not enough,” Wolf said. “We operate on such small margins.”

Highland Bakery and Cafe, 2012 Ford Pkwy., has no outdoor seating and is experiencing extremely slow business indoors, according to owner Deb Narusiewicz. To reduce costs, the restaurant is now open for breakfast and lunch only. Narusiewicz remodeled the cafe late last year with improved ventilation and air filtration and is following all of the rules for safe indoor dining.

“I’m doing everything I can to make people feel comfortable,” she said. Still, she added, the future looks “scary.”

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