Dining tables form a makeshift assembly line at Va Bene Caffe in Duluth.
The setup is better for workers preparing takeout meals for curbside delivery, said Luke Schmitz, co-owner of the popular Italian restaurant.
READ MORE: The News Tribune has compiled a list of open businesses, including restaurants. Click here for more information.
“We are adapting day by day,” Schmitz said over the weekend, as the effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic rapidly play out. “We knew it was coming, but this happened faster than we thought.”
Restaurants and other venues that serve dine-in customers were directed to stop serving food inside their establishments March 17 by Gov. Tim Walz, in Minnesota’s efforts to slow the spread of the virus. Many in the area simply closed up shop, but dozens are trying, at least for now, to nourish their customers through delivery and pick-up services.
Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake will reassess operations every few days, said owner Josh Stotts. Customers have been generous, he said, buying gift cards for the future.
“We always say support local, but to see people come through in a time of crisis is really heartwarming,” Stotts said.
Sanitary standards in many venues have been strengthened beyond what the state requires. Establishments are encouraging payment over the phone to eliminate one point of contact, wearing gloves when handling cash, touching to-go bags by the bottom and not the handle or having customers pick them up from a counter. Frequent sanitizing of surfaces, prohibiting ill employees from working and even keeping a front door propped open are all methods to prevent the spread of unknown illness.
Supply orders have slowed, and restaurants that rely heavily on liquor sales are seeing profits dry up.
“It’s hurting a lot of people,” Stotts said, but it’s hard to argue with the state’s decision.
Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma’s Inc., said the company laid off 350 employees last week.
“It’s the absolute worst thing I’ve ever done in my restaurant career,” he said.
The company has kept half its operations running for now — Little Angie’s Cantina and Grill, and the Virginia, Canal Park and Miller Hill locations of Grandma’s Saloon and Grill. Along with take-out, those locations are offering free meals to the company’s laid-off employees. Last Friday, several long-time executive and sous chefs from a range of Grandma’s properties made more than 300 of those.
“We understand that everybody is hurting right now,” Daugherty said. “This is an industry of very thin margins. This model is not sustainable.”
READ MORE: The website Duluth Loves Local has begun compiling a list of restaurants and bars that continue to serve food through pick-up and/or delivery services. Find that here.
Gannucci’s Italian Market owner Bill Kalligher said he’s not worried about the survival of the longtime family-run West Duluth business.
“You’re going to think I’m nuts,” he said. “But we started from nothing, and if it goes away, we will do something else.”
More than anything, he’s grateful for the eruption in kindness he has witnessed in recent days.
“We’re all in the same place together,” he said. “I have hope that it’s going to be glorious on the other end of this.”
Theresa Holte, manager of the Lakeside neighborhood’s New London Cafe, said a band of regulars is working hard to give the beloved breakfast and lunch cafe business.
“We are so grateful for everything,” she said. “Just seeing their faces, even through a car window, helps a lot.”
Schmitz said enough dinners have been ordered to justify Va Bene’s open hours, but lunch service may be eliminated at some point. He hopes to stay busy enough so the dozen or so employees who wanted to continue to work can earn more income than what unemployment benefits offer. But he worries about what the pandemic will mean for the summer months, when most local restaurants make enough money to see them through the Northland’s tough winters.
“It’s one day at a time,” he said.
How the government responds to the plight of the service industry will determine the fate of full-service restaurants, Daugherty said, noting the Minnesota Restaurant Association will make a formal request for help.
Tourists come to Duluth for a lot of reasons, he said, and treasured local restaurants are one of them. The area’s hospitality industry and economic health depend in large part on the existence of those.
“It’s time to reorganize and rethink,” Daugherty said. “There is opportunity here, but on a weighted scale, I think the challenges are greater.”
And while the elimination of dine-in services hits restaurants and bars financially, it’s also a blow for those that serve as neighborhood gathering places.
“People are social creatures, so this is hard for us,” Stotts said. “But we will pull through it.”
Sir Benedict's Tavern on the Lake, 805 E. Superior St., offers delivery within a 7-mile radius and in-store and curbside pickup, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. Website ordering — sirbens.com — available. 218-728-1192.
Va Bene Caffe, 734 E. Superior St., offers curbside delivery or pick-up noon to 8 p.m. daily. Website ordering — vabenecaffe.com — encouraged. 218-722-1518.
Gannucci’s Italian Market, 301 N. Central Ave., offers pick-up Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Call 218-624-2286. Find them on Facebook.
New London Cafe, 4721 E. Superior St., offers pickup and curbside delivery 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Check days and hours on its Facebook page for changes. 218-525-0777. newlondoncafeduluth.com
Grandma’s Saloon and Grill’s Virginia, Canal Park and Miller Hill locations, along with Canal Park’s Little Angie’s Cantina offer curbside delivery and pickup, with some locations offering delivery through Food Dudes. Call locations for details. grandmasrestaurants.com.
Freelance writer Jana Hollingsworth is a Twin Ports native and former News Tribune reporter. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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