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."

Piggy Blue's Bar-B-Que

Amber MacIntosh, with Piggy Blue's Bar-B-Que, alternates between two phones while taking customers' orders over the phone during the lunch hour Thursday, March 19, 2020, in downtown Austin, Minn. Owner Josh Diaz said the restaurant, which is closed to dine-in customers because of the coronavirus pandemic, is offering curbside pickup and delivery. "We'd be packed," said Diaz of what the typical lunch crowd is like. (Joe Ahlquist / jahlquist@postbulletin.com)

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.

Empty Tables

Karrie Heydt, owner of Tarsilla’s Cafe, leans on the counter, worried of the situation during the COVID-19 pandemic on Friday, March 20, 2020 at Tarsilla’s Cafe in Stewartville. “A Friday at lunch time, it would be pretty full, with Friday fish fry, Friday nights would be crazy busy also, especially during lent,” Heydt said. “It couldn’t have come at a worse time. I’m sad for my employees, because most of them I had to tell them no more work. I’m worried. The bills keep coming, you know maybe your rent can be put off but the electric bill keeps coming, the gas bill keeps coming, the water bill keeps coming. But, we are a tough family, and we have been through a lot already, so we will be fine. I truly believe that.” (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

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.

Adapting to closed dining rooms

Customers wait for their orders outside on Thursday, March 19, 2020 at Chipotle in Rochester. After restaurants were closed to dine-in guests to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, restaurants had to adapt to keep business. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

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.

Dairy Queen Stewartville

Cook Dennis Reeve peers out of an order window shortly after lunch-hour following the COVID-19 pandemic shut down of restaurants to dine-in guests on Friday, March 20, 2020, at Dairy Queen in Stewartville. “We are nervous, but we have a lot of faith, too. We are nervous that we’d actually have to completely close and won’t be able to pay the bills,” owner Ashley Mousch said, grateful to still have drive-thru business. “We are trying to stay positive.” (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

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?"

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