Downtown Saint Paul restaurants and entertainment venues have been devastated by the pandemic. Patrons have shied away from indoor dining and large crowds during successive surges of COVID-19, and thousands of downtown employees have vacated their offices to work from home. Almost two years into the pandemic, an estimated 55 to 60 percent of downtown office workers have yet to return, according to Joe Spencer, president of the Saint Paul Downtown Alliance.

There are glimmers of hope, however. The recent Winter Carnival brought crowds of people downtown. Mayor Melvin Carter lifted the vaccine mandate on patrons of bars and restaurants on February 10. Valentine’s Day promotions are right around the corner. And based on conversations with several major employers, Spencer is predicting a widespread return of downtown office workers within the next few months.

“Downtown business districts face a real challenge if they rely on foot traffic,” said Ben Wogsland of Hospitality Minnesota. A recent survey by the trade association showed that 52 percent of food service operators statewide are projecting much lower revenue this winter compared to prepandemic times.

 

Saint Dinette
Patrons enjoy a quiet lunch on January 29 at Saint Dinette. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Several downtown restaurateurs reported revenue declines of 30 to 80 percent at various times during the pandemic. Tim Mahoney, owner of the Loon Cafe in downtown Saint Paul and downtown Minneapolis, said his restaurant does well when events are happening at nearby Xcel Energy Center, Palace and Ordway theaters, the Amsterdam Bar and kj’s hideaway. During Winter Carnival, “many people noted how nice it was to see people out and about downtown,” Mahoney said. The hard part, he added, was having to hire additional staff to check for proof of COVID vaccinations or negative tests, which had been required by the city for entry into all restaurants with liquor licenses since January 19.

It has been a struggle to adapt

The Loon Cafe has been holding a cross-promotion this winter with kj’s hideaway and the Pillbox Tavern to draw attention to the area. CynCity Tours is participating by offering tours of the historic Hamm Building, which houses kj’s and the Loon. Pillbox, which opened just as COVID broke out in March 2020, is offering a free appetizer with an entrée purchase and a ticket stub from a show at kj’s hideaway.

Business has been best when there are events downtown, according to Pillbox general manager Matt Bakke, but the sports bar is also seeing some improvement in its weekday lunch business.

 

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Kristen Siers and her husband opened kj’s hideaway last September in the space vacated in June 2019 by the jazz club Vieux Carré. Business has been a challenge, she admitted, with frequent cancellations by bands when members contract COVID. “We’re now working on having local bands in reserve in case of last-minute cancellations,” she said.

The Saint Paul Hotel and its Saint Paul Grill have adapted to the new environment downtown by becoming more of a leisure destination, according to Richard Dobransky, president of Morrissey Hospitality, which manages the hotel and restaurant. Weekend occupancy at the hotel has been averaging between 75 and 80 percent, he said. Weekday occupancy is averaging 30 percent, down from 70 percent before the pandemic, he added.

Breakfast and lunch places have been especially hard hit

Downtown restaurants that have relied on lunch and breakfast traffic have been especially hard hit. Sales have fallen 40 percent since 2019 at the Skyway Grill, according to owner Scott Johnson. The Skyway Grill is one of five food outlets still operating in the Alliance Bank Center’s 11-space food court. “October through December were way off,” Johnson said. “I’m hoping February will be better.”

The Buttered Tin has seen its revenue decline about 35 percent from 2019, according to owner Alicia Hinze. The vaccine mandate that began on January 19 further curtailed her weekend breakfast business. “Some people don’t want to have to show a medical card to dine, even if they are vaccinated,” Hinze said prior to the lifting of the mandate. “If their kids haven’t taken the (COVID-19) test within 72 hours, they go to the suburbs.” Hinze is hoping her Valentine’s Day specials will bring in more business. Meanwhile, she continues to promote the takeout of her bakery items and full breakfasts.

Keys Cafe owner Carol Gregory said she was particularly dismayed by the vaccine mandate. Her sales were off by 50 percent. “The cities have destroyed both downtowns in Saint Paul and Minneapolis,” Gregory said. “This is the worst I’ve seen in 33 years in business.”

Signs of new life are cropping up

The vaccine mandate was not a deterrent for patrons at Meritage. “We’ve had no pushback on masks or proof of vaccination,” said Marguerite Mingus, assistant director of operations. To cope with the pandemic, Meritage shortened its operations from six days per week to Thursdays through Sundays. “We’ve reinvented ourselves and pared down our staff and seating to 80 percent of normal,” Mingus said. Reservations at Meritage for Valentine’s Day and the weekend before were sold out almost two weeks in advance, she added.

Saint Dinette, which is normally closed on Mondays, will be open on Valentine’s Day with a special menu. “We’re looking forward to people seeing that they can go downtown and not get sick,” said owner Tim Niver. “What business will we get back? It’s hard to forecast. I’m still in austerity mode and have battened down the hatches.”

Across the street from Saint Dinette, the brewpub MetroNOME is scheduled to open soon in the space formerly occupied by Birch’s Lowertown Taproom. “We weren’t targeting downtown, but we found this ideal space right next to the Farmers’ Market and CHS Field,” said co-owner Matt Engstrom.

Engstrom and partner Bill Eddins, a former conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, are planning to offer live jazz music and hope to hire some of the artists who performed at the now defunct Black Dog Cafe.

 

MetroNOME
Matt Engstrom poses for posterity while preparing for the opening of MetroNOME, his new brewpub in downtown Saint Paul’s Lowertown. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Other signs of new life are cropping up downtown. Madison Restaurant Group recently reopened the Gray Duck Tavern with a more casual atmosphere and more moderately priced menu. Morrissey Hospitality is preparing to open a new restaurant in a portion of the former Pazzaluna space in early March, according to Dobransky. And the new Courtyard by Marriott hotel is scheduled to open this spring with an upscale supper club across from Xcel Energy Center.

— Carolyn Walkup

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