New restaurants opening in St. Paul as industry hopes for a rebound

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It’s been a challenging two years for the hospitality industry, from shutdowns to restrictions to new waves of COVID cases. Heading into spring and summer, however, there’s hope for a boost in business.

“We want to go out and enjoy a meal again and have normalcy,” said Brianna Le.

Le is the CEO and co-owner of Em Que Viet, a new Vietnamese restaurant opening in St. Paul. The family-owned and operated business is moving into an old bookstore on Grand Avenue.

“It was a blank slate we could make ours,” said Le. “It was perfect for us.”

Em Que Viet is expected to open this spring. It’s an extension of a legacy that started in Northeast Minneapolis. Her husband’s family opened Que Viet in 1980.

“We’re actually the longest-running Vietnamese restaurant in Minnesota,” Le said. “Vietnamese wasn’t a popular cuisine, so [my mother-in-law] did what everyone else was doing. She did a lot of Vietnamese dishes, a lot of stir-fries, and then her egg rolls were what actually caught wind, and everyone loved it.”

Their egg rolls have become a Minnesota State Fair favorite.

The Grand Avenue restaurant will feature those famous egg rolls and bakery items similar to those found at the original location.

Le explained they will also expand on Que Viet’s menu with new recipes.

“We are trying to be more Vietnamese, what my mother-in-law wanted to do, and we’re able to do that now because the taste buds of everyone have grown so much,” said Le. “We’re excited to have everybody try the new flavors that we have. We’re excited for everybody to be in this space.”

Em Que Viet is one of several new restaurants opening in St. Paul.

Service started at Momento, which replaced Pazzaluna downtown, about two weeks ago.

“This is one of a half dozen restaurants that have opened in the last couple of weeks or so,” said St. Paul Downtown Alliance President Joe Spencer, from a table at Momento. “There’s a few more coming.”

Spencer says there’s been new momentum downtown over the last two months, with events picking up at the Xcel Energy Center and theaters. Workers have also started to return to downtown offices.

“Last spring through the summer, through August really, we were doing okay, and we were really recovering pretty well,” Spencer said. “But then in October, November, [with] Delta and then Omicron, it really was not what we were hoping for and delayed this return several more months than we wished it had … We’re really happy to finally feel like we have wind in our sails.”

According to Spencer, the pandemic cost the city about 10%, or 30 to 35, of its storefront businesses. He said about 10 businesses have now come back.

“It’s been a great two months, and it’s just going to keep on ramping up, I think, over the next 45 days,” Spencer said.

There are still challenges facing the restaurant industry. A recent survey from Hospitality Minnesota shows about half of restaurant and foodservice businesses statewide don’t expect to get back to normal until 2023.

“We’re also hearing about half of them are continuing to be concerned about insolvency or going out of business in the next six to twelve months,” said Ben Wogsland, the Hospitality Minnesota executive vice president.

According to the survey, about 66% of restaurants also took on an average debt of $552,659 due to COVID.

“That’s a pretty significant debt for a small or medium-sized business or restaurant here in Minnesota,” said Wogsland.

He also pointed out restaurants face rising food costs and a labor shortage.

“I think the common thing is that everybody is short on everything,” said Le, at Em Que Viet. “The prices of everything is even to me shocking.”

She explained that the price for egg roll wrappers has increased from $30 per case before the pandemic to $140 per case. They’ve also struggled to find employees for the new restaurant, despite advertising hiring bonuses.

“It’s been difficult,” she said. “We’ve done everything from paid job postings, which we spent a lot of money on – more than I expected. We did the free ones on Facebook. We’ve done word of mouth. We’ve done everything. We’ve posted job fair, and the numbers that show up just aren’t there.”

Despite the challenges restaurants face, Le is excited about the future of their restaurant and the industry as a whole in the Twin Cities.

“I think especially recently with the new places that seem to be ready to open, I think we’re all seeing we’re excited,” she said.