NORTH MANKATO — The sudden arrival of numbing cold put an end to the idea of enjoying a meal and drinks on an outdoor patio and pushed restaurant and bar owners into unknown territory as they try to gauge what impact winter will have on an already unprecedented year.
“The outdoor seating is done until April,” said Wade Becker, owner of Big Dog Sports Cafe in upper North Mankato.
He’s been relieved the changed season hasn’t had a big impact so far. “Business was down a little bit but, thank goodness, not drastically. Our curbside remains very strong,” Becker said.
Patrick Person, who with family members and other partners owns several local restaurants, said they use outdoor heaters when they can and always have a few customers who like to be outside, even in the cold months. But the coming winter raises new challenges for an already beleaguered industry.
“Our carryout and delivery picks up (when it gets colder),” he said. “But there is virtually no late-night business whatsoever, and by late-night I mean after 9 o’clock. I’m wondering if that will ever change.”
Alexa Swindell Prosser opened her new Nolabelle Restaurant + Bar in downtown Mankato in the midst of the pandemic and has enjoyed being able to serve new customers on their outdoor patio.
“We’re bummed for the patio being closed. Hopefully we’ll get a few more nice fall days to use it,” Swindell Prosser said.
While she had hoped to add a few more days of outdoor dining by using propane heaters on the patio, that dream isn’t going to happen.
“There are no propane heaters left in the country. I check every day and hope to find some magic stash of them, but there aren’t any.”
Because her business is a new restaurant, people wanted to come check it out but weren’t always comfortable dining inside, she said, so having outdoor seating was a big boost.
Unlike most other restaurateurs, she has nothing to compare business to pre-pandemic times.
“We’re busy some days; we’re not busy other days. It’s been fun, though, seeing people come here for the first time and our job is to make them want to come back,” she said. “We’re hanging in there.”
Becker said curbside business has helped Big Dog considerably and said customers have supported it even when they were allowed to start coming back inside restaurants.
“In June when we could open up again, I thought curbside would drop but it stayed up and even grew. So then we had some indoor seating and the curbside.”
Becker said customers also appreciate the convenience of their curbside pickup. Customers only call to place their order and don’t have to call again when they arrive to pick it up. Instead, Big Dog has six stalls with letters on them and they tell customers a time to arrive and which stall to pull into. “We watch, and when they pull into the stall, we take their order out and they’re done.”
For Big Dog, it was a big boost when regulations were eased allowing 10 rather than six customers in a group. “We have seven tables that can comfortably seat 10 so that helped us dramatically.”
He said prior to that when a group of seven to 10 came in, staff would have to tell them they would have to be split into two groups. “People understood, but it was frustrating for them. Now we don’t have to deal with explaining that so that’s been a big help,” Becker said.
‘Gone on too long’
Person, whose family has lived and breathed the restaurant business for several decades, is clearly exasperated as pandemic restrictions have made it increasingly difficult for bar and restaurant owners to stay viable as their indoor space capacity is limited by state regulations
“It’s ridiculous. If you’re wearing a mask and I’m wearing a mask and there are dividers (between tables), I don’t know why they don’t ease the restrictions. Especially in Minnesota where it gets cold,” Person said. “People have a right to go out. I think we forget that.”
He said they’ve taken a number of steps at Dino’s, No. 4, Tav on the Ave and other businesses they own, including putting in dividers and extending the height between booths at all locations. The cost, he said, has been high, and his fixed costs haven’t gone down even though he’s forced to operate at half capacity.
“My liquor license is still 100%, my taxes are still 100%. The big-box stores aren’t required to operated at 50%. The Free Press doesn’t have to print half a paper.”
Person said he’s not sure how many more customers would come inside if restaurants and bars were allowed to operate fully but thinks people should have the right to decide what they want to do.
“You gamble every day when you open a bar or restaurant, but this makes it a lot harder.
“I’d like to be positive, but what’s positive? It’s gone on too long. The true numbers of this thing hasn’t been that bad. I understand if you’re in a nursing home or have a condition, there’s concern.”
Person said he has family members who are elderly and have immune weakness and they are taking and should take precautions. But for most, he argues, the risk is much less.
Person had contracted COVID-19.
“I caught it. I’m in my 50s. I was fatigued for three days and had a runny nose. Is it that way for everyone? No. But neither is the flu. Everyone gets it different. I just believe people should have their choices back.”