Change is coming for Minnesota restaurants and bars.
Gov. Tim Walz is expected to loosen state in-dining restrictions spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday. It could be a lifeline for struggling restaurants. It's a familiar situation for local restaurants, which have seen many changes during the pandemic.
“We sit and wait for him to talk at 2 p.m. tomorrow,” said Dave Currie, who co-owns Creative Cuisine restaurants in Rochester. “Anybody in my industry is looking forward to safely reopening their restaurants, like we have before.”
While loosening restrictions is welcomed by everyone, it might not change much for some local restaurants.
Even if the governor allows limited in-restaurant dining, Chef Zach Ohly said it still wouldn’t make financial sense to open the doors of Cameo at the Castle in downtown Rochester to the public.
“At 25 or 50% capacity, it doesn’t make sense. There’s no way to make it work,” he said. “Until consumer confidence is back, we’re not going to open up the floodgates … Opening up for the general public — I don’t see that as an option until springtime.”
However, loosened restrictions could open the door for private events, where the dining room is rented out and the environment can be closely controlled. That’s only one of the creative approaches Ohly has cooked up to keep Cameo alive.
He's also mapping out a plan to introduce a “ghost kitchen” concept. That means stirring things up using the Cameo kitchen to serve up a new and unrelated menu for a couple days or more a week.
Ohly, who is working on opening Relish inside the Rochester Athletic Center, also plans to build a semipermanent outside patio area at Cameo to offer al fresco dining in the spring.
“We need to do everything we need to come out the other side,” he said. “We need to focus on what’s viable and how we get our product out to the market in these strange times.”
Currie also understands the need to get creative. He and his brother Mark Currie operate multiple Newt's locations, Hefe Rojo, City Market and the Redwood Room in Rochester.
While the state’s move to allow outside dining during a Minnesota winter drew a lot of jeers, the Curries took advantage of it to offer a New Year’s Eve bash with fire pits, music and drink/food specials in the parking lot of Newt’s North.
“Patios in December and January aren’t great for Minnesota, but we had a really fun time,” he said. “We had a pretty good turnout ... I’d say 90 some percent of the people just thanked us for being open and for giving them a reason to get out of the house.”
Ted Paizis, who co-owns three Nupa locations in Rochester and one in Mankato, is hopeful that state changes could help restaurants, though his have not been hit as hard as others.
“We’re doing OK. We’re designed for takeout. That’s our niche ... We’ve always been a place that people went to for takeout,” he said.
His sales haven't really decreased, though his overhead costs — with more credit card charges, takeout containers and 30% commissions from delivery services — have skyrocketed.
“We’ll pull through this … We’re grateful,” Paizis said. “I really feel bad for other places. I know how tough this industry is, in general, even without a shutdown.”
No matter what the exact changes are, the bottom line for local restaurants and bars is that they are willing to do whatever is necessary to keep their doors open and keep their customers safe.
“I hope for the sake of small business out there, like myself, that the restrictions loosen more as the cases keep going down,” Currie said. “We’ve been in the business of keeping things clean and sanitary for a lot longer than it has been a cool thing to do … It’s always in our best interest to keep people healthy in our restaurants.”