As some Minnesotans return to work, restaurants face uncertainty

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While thousands of businesses across Minnesota were allowed to reopen on Monday, there is still uncertainty for restaurants.

Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order in March closing restaurants to dining. Six weeks later, there is still no timeline on when the order could be lifted.

Minnesota’s stay-at-home order expires on May 4.

“Social distancing in our space is nearly impossible,” said Alison Kirwin, owner of Al’s Breakfast.

The Dinkytown hotspot only has 14 seats. On a busy Saturday, they would usually serve as many as 180 people, with a line out the door.

“I’m not sure what it’s going to take for us to be able to have people in our space again,” she said. “And I don’t know if we’re going to have the opportunity to serve people outside because that’s not something we’ve ever done.”

For now, they’re focusing on take-out and curbside pickup.

“We’ve had to make a major shift to figure out how to incorporate that into the food that we serve,” Kirwin said.

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They’re also selling their staples in bulk like pancake batter and corned beef hash.

To help her employees, Kirwin is providing staff meals twice a week, including the half who are currently on unemployment.

The owners of Red Rabbit and Red Cow are also adapting, selling take-and-bake meals and grocery items.

“We learned quickly that our in-store menu was not going to work,” said Michael Giacomini, the director of finance for the restaurants. “What do people want now that they have to be at home?”

He said they’ve developed a new way of doing business over the last few weeks, increasing curb-side delivery and now encouraging people to order through their app.

On Thursday, they plan to reopen Grand Ave. Red Rabbit location for curbside delivery.

“Our biggest challenge is we just can’t get enough people to come back to work right now,” he said. “It’s hard to bring people back to work because it’s a scary time and it’s obviously a close environment in a restaurant. Then obviously the unemployment system is pretty generous to a lot of people.”

According to the National Restaurant Association, the industry could lose more than $50 billion in sales in April and up to $240 billion by the end of the year.

“It’s still a very devastating time for our industry,” said Liz Rammer, the CEO and president of Hospitality Minnesota. “This is a key driver to Minnesota’s economy, not just restaurants but hospitality overall.”

She said they are already seeing restaurants in Minnesota close permanently due to the crisis.

“Some tried to make a go of curbside take-out and delivery and because their business model doesn’t work for that they weren’t able to keep that up or make that worth their while from a profitability standpoint,” Rammer said.

“The longer this shutdown goes, the more difficult it’s going to be for restaurants to make it to the other side of the crisis.”

Rammer hopes that state officials will consider additional options for relief, including sales and property tax remittance.

“That’s what hospitality is, it’s about community and we need to do everything we can to help these folks stay in business,” Rammer said.

Giacomini told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that their sales are down 80 to 85 percent per week.

“We’re losing money every week,” he said. “We’re not making money doing this, we’re just trying to figure out how to lose less money to make our business last longer.”

The state’s decision to allow curb-side liquor sales is already helping. During the first weekend, he said, they sold more than 100 bottles of wine.

He’s also encouraged to see others return to work.

“As long as people can get back to work in different segments, that makes me feel better about going forward because they’re still willing to spend money,” Giacomini said.

Both he and Kirwin are encouraging people to order online and buy merchandise, while grateful for the outpouring of support they’ve already received.

“I am just humbled by the entire experience,” Kirwin said. “I think that there will be an end to this and Al’s Breakfast will definitely make it to the other side in one way or another.”