As everyone is reeling in the wake of the dramatic changes driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants and bars are trying to figure out how to serve customers in new ways.
"We're really scrambling to figure what we can do safely for the community and for our staff," said Dennis Wong, the owner of two Dunn Bros. Coffee locations in Rochester as well as two Blue Plate Diners.
Following the state mandate to close dining areas in restaurants, Wong says the Salem Road and Elton Hills Drive Dunn Bros. shops have shifted their focus to take-out orders and drive-thru service.
"Thank goodness we have drive-thrus. The coffee business is a natural for drive-thrus, and we're also selling our menu of soups and sandwiches," he said. "That's allowed us to keep some of our sales."
Wong said the management has been talking "extensively" with the staff about how to keep everyone employed. Some employees are taking time off, so others in more desperate need can work more hours. With less work at the coffee shops, some staffers are picking up more hours doing "deep cleaning" in the locations.
The pandemic hit just as Wong was transitioning a Dunn Bros. shop on South Broadway and the associated Zumbro River Cafe by the Elton Hills into two new Blue Plate Diner locations. He plans to launch those this month as sort of "ghost" restaurants to sell solely by delivery and take-out.
Blue Plate's menu, based off Zumbro River Cafe, offers a variety of "comfort food", like beer-braised beef, soups, sandwiches and salads. It will also serve all-day breakfast with biscuits and gravy, breakfast burritos and a "Breakfast Poutine Bowl" with milk sausage gravy, cheddar cheese, and tater tots.
To get that food to customers, Wong plans to offer delivery through Rochester's Waiters Express food delivery service. He hopes to launch that new option soon, possibly by late next week.
Waiters Express, a 25-year-old Med City business, works with about 40 area restaurants and delivers to Rochester and Byron.
Ranae Wiggins, co-owner of Waiters Express, says it's a different landscape compared to last month.
"We're working hand-in-hand with restaurants to try to help them stay afloat," she said.
Catering deliveries have evaporated with the changes. The usual core base of Mayo Clinic patients staying at local hotels is shrinking. However, local people who no longer can visit their favorite restaurants are starting to turn to delivery, maybe for the first time.
Waiters Express drivers are working to limit person-to-person contact. Restaurants, like Ichi Toyko, are leaving packaged meals on tables for the drivers to pick up. And drivers, on request, are leaving the deliveries at the front doors of customers.
"We're doing whatever the customers want," said Wiggins.
Of course, the situation is changing day-to-day, but she believes things will pick up some for local restaurants and her team.
"People are getting in their own routines ... figuring things out," said Wiggins. "As time goes on, I expect it will get busier. But who knows?"