Eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, bars and restaurants in the neighborhoods served by the Villager are struggling mightily. Though Minnesota Governor Tim Walz has allowed restaurants to operate at up to 50 percent capacity since June, patrons are proving to be reluctant to come inside for fear of infection. Establishments with large patios or sidewalk cafes have made do, but the days of outdoor dining may be over. Nevertheless, at least a half dozen new restaurants have opened locally over the past few months. They all share the same business strategy—a primary focus on takeout.

“Consumer habits are changing,” noted Bret Thorn, senior editor for Restaurant Hospitality magazine. “They’re ordering takeout more often, so many fast-food and fast-casual restaurants are thriving.”

The Saturday lunch crowd at West Seventh Street’s Woodfired Cantina Lounge enjoyed their food and beverages at the socially distanced tables and counter. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Upwards of 100,000 restaurants have closed nationally since March, leading to the loss of 2.3 million jobs, according to Vanessa Sink of the National Restaurant Association. The closings include at least nine restaurants in the Villager area: Bar Brigade, Cleveland Wok, Rah’Mn, In Bloom, Pazzaluna, M Street Cafe, Octo Fishbar, Salty Tart, and Birch’s Lowertown Tap Room and Barrel House.

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A recent study by Hospitality Minnesota and the Federal Reserve Board of Minneapolis found that 52 percent of the restaurant operators in Minnesota expect to be insolvent within six months if the pandemic continues. Restaurateurs able to adapt their businesses to takeout are seeing some success, according to Ben Wogsland, director of government relations for Hospitality Minnesota. “This industry is very challenging,” he said, “but it always has been an adaptable industry.”

“It all comes down to the math,” said former Octo Fishbar chef Tim McKee. “Everyone is working off of a business model that says they’ll make between 7 and 15 percent profit if they’re lucky. If you’re at reduced capacity, it doesn’t take much to take that 15 percent down to 0 percent. I really worry where this industry is headed.”

New restaurants in neighborhoods served by the Villager include Coconut Thai, 720 Grand Ave.; Hamburguesas El Gordo, 161 N. Victoria St.; Nashville Coop, 300 S. Snelling Ave.; and Woodfired Cantina, 928 W. Seventh St. Handsome Hog moved out of Saint Paul’s Lowertown to replace the Fitz at Selby and Western avenues. Bap and Chicken, 1328 Grand Ave., has expanded with a new food truck, the Bapmobile. And Tono Pizzeria + Cheese­steak is preparing to open in late November at Saint Clair and Snelling avenues.

The takeout business at Coconut Thai has been steady, according to manager Chayden Yang. However, the owners have opted to leave their nicely appointed dining room empty for now.

Claudia Mendez, co-owner of Hamburguesas El Gordo, said that she and her husband decided to expand into their second location on Victoria Street because there was no other Mexican restaurant in the vicinity.

Kamal Mohamed, his brother and parents opened Nashville Coop in September. They have a small dining room, but customers have been lining up down the sidewalk for takeout orders of its spicy fried chicken.

Sarah and Brian Ingram, co-owners of Hope Breakfast Bar on Leech Street, recently took over the former In Bloom space at Keg and Case Market for their Mexican-flavored Woodfired Cantina and added a seasonal patio. They also purchased the Happy Gnome on Selby Avenue and renamed it the Gnome Craft Pub. “We have to keep moving forward and taking risks,” Sarah Ingram said.

John Gleason, owner of Bap and Chicken, launched his food truck two months ago because of COVID-19. His brick-and-mortar restaurant has suffered due to the pandemic, but it has made up some business with takeout orders. “We take it day by day,” Gleason said. “It’ll be interesting this winter.”

Tono Pizzeria + Cheesesteak of Maplewood expanded into the former Saint Clair Broiler location largely because of its proximity to Macalester College, according to manager Kegan Workman. The restaurant will have delivery as well as takeout to augment its indoor dining room, he said.

Patrons bid adieu to several popular restaurants

The closing of Pazzaluna after 22 years on Saint Peter Street shocked longtime patrons. Richard Dobransky, president of Morrissey Hospitality, which operated Pazzaluna, said the restaurant was no longer profitable. He blamed it on the pandemic-related suspension of concerts, plays and sporting events downtown.

Morrissey is planning to reopen the Pazzaluna space, Dobransky said. It is now using the Saint Paul Hotel’s former M Street Cafe for catering and its Saint Paul Grill for private parties of up to 10. The Saint Paul Hotel’s occupancy rate has fallen to about 20 percent, Dobransky said, compared to 80 percent before COVID-19 hit. “At some point we want to get back in business,” he said. However, he does not expect downtown workers to return in large numbers until the second quarter of 2021.

Matty O’Reilly, owner of Bar Brigade at 470 S. Cleveland Ave., said his bistro was having its best year in 2019, and 2020 was shaping up to be even better before COVID-19. He said he just did not have the space to accommodate social distancing.

Three of the recently closed restaurants—Octo Fishbar, Salty Tart and Birch’s—were located across Fifth Street from the Saint Paul Farmers’ Market. The market was not attracting the customer traffic the restaurants had been counting on, according to former Octo Fishbar chef Tim McKee, and COVID-19 was the last straw.

“It all comes down to the math,” McKee said. “Everyone is working off of a business model that says they’ll make between 7 and 15 percent profit if they’re lucky. If you’re at reduced capacity, it doesn’t take much to take that 15 percent down to 0 percent. I really worry where this industry is headed.”

— Carolyn Walkup

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