Lean Times: Pandemic stories from Minnesota restaurants that survived the crisis—or didn’t

El Burrito’s Minneapolis location on Chicago Ave in Minneapolis // Photo by Tj Turner

The hospitality industry exists somewhere at the intersection between magic and mathematics. On the “magic” side of things: the cheerful ambiance of a full dining room. Servers and bartenders who can intuit the guests’ needs before the guests can speak them aloud. Ingredients with connections to the land, to growers, and to traditions that make everything taste more delicious.

But then there’s the math. More people per square foot times bigger check totals equals more revenue. Thin out those numbers—fewer guests, more dead space in your expensive-to-lease physical space—and the whole thing collapses.

So for the hospitality industry, a deadly pandemic may pack more sheer destructive force than just about any natural disaster short of nuclear war. When Governor Tim Walz closed Minnesota restaurants on March 17, 2020, his order did more than empty out the bistros and bars—it unleashed a hurricane that ripped apart an industry, thrusting sudden change upon every chef and owner and shuttering many restaurants entirely.

Someday COVID-19 will be a part of history. And when things have returned to something resembling a new “normal,” the stories of restaurateurs who were closed down by it, persisted through it, or even opened their doors as it gained momentum will be vital reading for those who want to learn from their experiences and prepare for the next crisis coming down the pike.

Hanging Tough in Duluth

“We were on a great path,” recalls Jeff Petcoff, one of the co-owners of the Duluth Grill group of restaurants in Duluth. “We had the best start to a year in a long time [in 2020],” he says. “We were gearing up for another great summer.” Petcoff and his partners run restaurants that have won plaudits from diners and writers across the state. 

Duluth Grill has been a pioneer when it comes to local eating, delivering contemporary ingredients and practices served up in comfort-food trappings. Since opening in 2017, OMC Smokehouse has impressed guests with its ultra-traditional and beautifully executed barbecue, and the group’s Corktown Deli serves up Reubens good enough to satisfy persnickety guests with Brooklyn dining experience. 

In short: it’s a group that tends to the details, and you might guess its team would take COVID-19 in stride. And by Petcoff’s account, they have—it’s just that “stride” means something a little different when your industry grapples with a disaster of this scale.

“It was a little bit of a disbelief thing—’aw, it won’t be that big of a deal,’” recalls Petcoff of the pandemic’s initial appearance on the scene in February. “But it kept coming. We eventually decided we had to shut things down, around St. Patrick’s Day. There’s so much uncertainty, and there still is to this day. What do you mean, we just shut the hospitality business down? That’s never happened before.”

In mid-March, the group ceased operations and laid off 200 employees, a brutal blow to a company that has been slowly and steadily growing since it de-franchised from Embers in 2001 and “went rogue” with a program of healthy, local ingredients.

“I think we went through the seven stages of grief,” says Petcoff. “We had every emotion. Trying to remain optimistic is important, but we shut down every one of our locations for a month. We checked in daily on the restaurants but did not open at all. We just had to collect what we were trying to do and come up with a gameplan.”

Online ordering and curbside pickup was a big part of it; the group’s reopening on April 22 made local news and kicked off an ambitious effort to retool and reboot. Petcoff says that change is now a given.

“I don’t know if the restaurant business will ever be the same as it was,” says Petcoff. “No one knows what tomorrow will look like, but the to-go business has been incredible.” The group created a bodega inside of Corktown Deli, and Petcoff says that’s struck a chord as well. “We’re offering cleaning supplies, sanitizer, farm-fresh eggs, local beef, there’s all the necessities,” he says. “We’re going to keep doing that even after all this is over, whatever ‘over’ looks like.”

Amid Chaos, A Fresh Start

Zye Kurniawan boxing up togo orders at Young Man in the Kingfield neighborhood of South Minneapolis // Photo bu Tj Turner

“We really became aware of [COVID-19] on March 7, and a week later the government issued the stay home order, and we felt pretty scared, and we didn’t know what to do,” recalls restaurateur Zye Kurniawan. “We’d just opened, a lot of people didn’t know us yet.”

For Zye, along with her husband Albert Kurniawan, the COVID-19 stay-at-home order literally couldn’t have come at a worse time. Their just-opened brick-and-mortar restaurant, Young Man, was an evolution for their family from their popular food truck Don Oishi. The Indonesian couple serves cuisine Zye describes as “Hawaiian-Balinese fusion,” and the restaurant was founded to be a stable base for the couple and their baby daughter, hooking into a burgeoning and diverse Minneapolis dining scene on Nicollet Avenue. 

“The pandemic meant we had to get rid of a lot of ingredients because we didn’t have customers in March,” recalls Zye. “But we got help from our loyal customers from the food truck and from local food bloggers, and the community in the neighborhood.”

She says that finding financial assistance has been difficult. “We tried to apply for a loan but we didn’t get it,” says Kurniawan, speaking of a City of Minneapolis forgivable small business loan that Young Man applied for in April and was denied in May. “We don’t really get any help from the government until now, but we’ve gotten help from the neighborhood and our customers.” Facing a broken AC unit and summer temperatures already topping 90 (as of early June), the Kurniawans are raffling off a Ford F-150 truck to drive publicity and customer support.

Business, they say, is up and down. “Right now feels better than March,” says Zye. “We’re just fighting and staying positive to stay open. In March and April, we think: ‘Is this the right thing, that we’re open?’”

El Burrito shuttered along Chicago Ave in South Minneapolis // Photo by Tj Turner

Letting Go of a Vision

“We were really struggling to find our place there, but it finally felt like we were there. And then this happened,” sighs Milissa Silva, president and CEO of long-standing institution El Burrito Mercado, who—with the counsel of her family—made the difficult decision to close their new Minneapolis restaurant on April 26.

Just over one month after the governor announced the temporary closure of bars and restaurants, Silva says she was left no choice but to shutter El Burrito Minneapolis, which opened its doors in 2018 at 48th and Chicago. “It was heartbreaking. I still get emotional just talking about how difficult it was to have to do that,” she says.

The restaurant was undergoing its final stage of renovation when the state went into lockdown in March, bringing its progress to a screeching halt. Already in debt from a loan taken out for the renovations, Silva says it quickly became apparent that applying for a PPP loan (or any other kind of loan) on top of that wasn’t a viable option. “It forced us to really sit down and look at, if we obtained a loan, what is the real feasibility of being able to turn this around?” Silva says she consulted with her family, the bank, and organizations that help minority-owned businesses, to explore any and every option to stay open, but eventually, the cons overwhelmed the pros. Even now, she finds herself asking ‘what if?’, only to wind up back at the same conclusion. “It just always comes back to: no, there really was no choice.”

While she has operations at El Burrito Mercado in St. Paul to focus on, Silva says her heart still aches with the loss of the Minneapolis restaurant. While it was a no-brainer from a business perspective, she says that the hardest part has been letting go of the vision, when it was so close to realization. But, in the end, the reality of getting buried under more debt with so much uncertainty was more than they could risk. 

“You don’t [open] a restaurant because you want to be rich—so much of it is so much hard work, and it’s because you’re passionate about it,” she says. “But when it started to feel like I’m just doing this to try and pay bills and get out of debt, it just didn’t feel fun anymore. It was hard to stay passionate about it.”