Northland restaurants, bars aim to stay afloat following mandated closures
Gov. Walz announced Monday evening that all restaurants, bars and breweries in the state must close effective Tuesday at 5 p.m.
Kaylen Forsberg has a straightforward reaction to the announcement that restaurants, bars and breweries in Minnesota will have to close for 10 days: "I'm terrified."
Forsberg was near the end of her shift Monday at Big Daddy's Burgers, a no-frills restaurant in Duluth's Piedmont neighborhood. It's among an untold number of establishments in the Northland that will have to adjust to a situation that would have seemed unimaginable a few weeks ago.
Gov. Tim Walz announced plans Monday to close all Minnesota restaurants, bars, coffee shops, breweries and more effective 5 p.m. Tuesday. To try and keep staff on the payroll and their businesses afloat, local entities are adding delivery services and curbside pickup – while also encouraging people to buy local if possible. Walz also signed an executive order Monday ensuring those who can't work due to the outbreak can access unemployment insurance.
As the number of cases in the state climbed to over 50 on Monday, the Democratic governor put a halt to visits to a wide gamut of public gathering spaces, including restaurants, bars, taverns, theaters, museums, wineries, clubs, performance venues, gyms, recreation centers, numerous entertainment venues and more.
They will stay closed until 5 p.m. March 27.
Walz’s announcement comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that there no longer be gatherings of more than 50 people in one space for the next eight weeks to mitigate the spread. President Donald Trump also urged Americans to avoid gatherings of 10 or more people.
“As the cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota continue to climb, we must take decisive action to curb the spread of this pandemic and protect the health and safety of Minnesotans,” Walz said. “This is a challenging time for business owners, employees, children and families alike.”
The news dismayed Pam Houle, who answered the phone at the Kom-On-Inn, a bar in West Duluth.
"I am incredibly frustrated," Houle said. "I'm trying to figure out what to do right now. I think it's going to be really hard for my employees and for us as a very small business trying to make it."
Houle said Walz's announcement took her off guard and was a "dramatic turn," considering that no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in this part of the state so far.
But Jayme Heim, co-owner of the Fall Inn Bar and Grill in Rice Lake, said she saw it coming and thought the mandated closing was the right thing to do.
That doesn't mean it will be easy.
"It's going to have a significant impact on us," Heim said. "My biggest concern is for our staff. They live paycheck to paycheck, and not having any income is going to be significant for them. ... We're telling them to file for unemployment. It's all we can do."
Axel Swenson, manager of the Powerhouse Bar in Proctor, said he thought the governor made the right call, even though he doesn't like the government telling him what to do. The bar itself can endure a closing until March 27, he said, but he's worried about its employees.
"I just hired a cleaner that's got a couple kids, and he's only been on the job a couple weeks," Swenson said. "That's going to be tough on him."
Swenson said he'll meet with his employees Tuesday after closing to give them their options about collecting unemployment. "I know we can't afford to keep them on payroll," he said. "We're probably going to take it day by day."
Before Walz made his announcement Monday evening, the staff and owners of Northern Waters Smokehaus met to discuss their response. They determined, for the safety of their customers and 43 employees, to close for the time being, owner Eric Goerdt said.
To compensate for lost dine-in orders, they plan to expand delivery services. Now, customers can order sandwiches or other items from the full menu.
Goerdt hopes expanded delivery services make up for lost in-store orders – but he isn’t sure that it will be enough.
“I feel lucky that we have this option because we do delivery as is,” he said. “I feel sorry (for) those who don't have a delivery component.”
By upping deliveries and moving some staff to delivery positions, they hope to keep all staff on the payroll, Goerdt said. If the closure continues, they may have to decrease pay or put people on unemployment.
“We just want to make sure to keep our payroll. This affects the whole economy: we’re all interested in making our mortgage payments, we all have those bills,” he said. “I love my employees like family. I want to try to keep … them with a paycheck.”
Up the hill at At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe, the past few days have been slow for the restaurant, owner Carla Blumberg said.
Like Northern Waters, At Sara’s Table also spent Monday in conversations about what to do for customers and staff. They came up with a similar idea: to close the restaurant and offer online ordering and pickup.
The restaurant recently finished a major construction project that increased its kitchen size and added a second-floor meeting space. Because of the funding spent on the project, Blumberg said they don’t have any reservoirs.
“I just don't know how this is going to go. This is going to be a major disturbance in Duluth and in the whole country,” she said. “It’s scary.”
They’re determining what workers can afford to be laid off, while some may be put on unemployment – after staff have used their paid time off and earned sick and safe time, Blumberg said.
Erik Haaversen is a line cook at the Kitchi Gammi Club. The virus is all they talk about in the kitchen, he said. Their main topic of concern is: “What the hell is everyone going to do?”
He hasn't learned yet if he will be compensated during the time off, but said personal savings for a mountain bike will instead be used for living expenses. He’s unsure what type of job he may land if he ends up needing to find a new one, as he only has kitchen experience and an incomplete math degree.
“I’m actually in a decent position right now,” he said “I know some of the other cooks definitely can't handle as much of a closure as I can.”
Ahead of the governor's announcement, Two Harbors’ Castle Danger closed its taproom effective Monday.
The taproom generates around 9-10% of the brewery’s revenue, said Maddy Stewart, marketing and events manager at Castle Danger. Decreases in orders from restaurants and bars may also impact Castle Danger’s profits.
“It will have an impact. Whether that is sizable, we’re not quite sure yet,” she said. “We will be just fine.”
Castle Danger doesn’t plan to lay off any staff. Its 35 full-time staff members will be kept on the payroll, as they continue to brew, bottle and package its beer, Stewart said.
Its approximately five to six part-time bartenders will hopefully be kept around to help with upcoming projects, like the release of a new variety 12-pack, she said.
One profit source that other breweries are utilizing is curbside growler pickup – a product that Castle Danger isn’t allowed to sell anymore. It hit the state-set production cap and can no longer sell the jugs of beer, Stewart said.
Duluth’s Wild State Cider also closed its taproom, but is able to tap into growler sales. It’s offering to-go sales of its growlers and cans, according to its Facebook page .
At the China Cafe in the Endion neighborhood, owner Lisa Yu said her business might actually benefit because it already provides delivery. "We can handle it," Yu said. "We won't lay off anybody. We will get busy. Very busy."
Back at Big Daddy's, Forsberg said she hoped to learn on Tuesday what her options are. Though distraught, she wasn't taken totally by surprise.
"I kind of saw it coming," Forsberg said, but added: "I feel like it's all being a little bit blown out of proportion."
This story originally listed the wrong neighborhood for China Cafe. It was updated at 10:12 a.m. March 17 with the correct neighborhood. The News Tribune regrets the error.
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