From multiple reinventions to becoming part of the gig economy, six industry veterans share how the pandemic has changed their worlds.
The year of the pivot
Robb Jones, co-owner of the Minneapolis dive bar Meteor, used the bar's Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) money to purchase a hot dog roller and launch a food program during the first shutdown. That wasn't the bar's only reinvention. It toyed with opening a car wash in the parking lot, created a cocktail tasting menu, started selling slushie mixes and is now making cordials for cocktail kits.
"Initially, I think everyone thought it would just be a couple of weeks, some sort of nationwide shutdown for a limited time frame and that the PPP would get everyone through that. So, we thought it would be kind of fun to do hot dogs. Then we did a tasting menu, which was hard for us to have business be consistent. We only had a certain amount of time to build a customer base — our first anniversary is this Saturday, the 19th. The people that we had, the loyalists, they want to hang out at the bar and are not really the type of people that would want to come in and do a fancy cocktail experience. So, you know, you can be open and you can say, 'Let's all open everything,' but no one's coming. To-go sales went OK for a while and then they kind of fell off. We're in a place now where we're just doing once a week pickup and pre-order. We would sit here for 10 hours a day and we would maybe make $40. Our business model isn't based on selling a $5 hot dog."
The year of surviving rather than thriving
Early on in the pandemic, John Sugimura, chef/co-owner of PinKU Japanese Street Food, discovered that his four-year-old restaurant was "set up for a pandemic, even though I didn't know a pandemic was coming," he said. His secret? The 900-square foot operation was already a lean, mean dining machine.
"We don't have a 130-seat dining room and 40 people on staff, and that has allowed us to be fluid. We can make adjustments on the fly. We didn't have to reinvent ourselves, and go through all the horrible steps that others had to go through. We were never knocked down and had to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off. We just marched on. We haven't grown, but we're not destitute, either. We've kept our head above water. It's been a tight ship, and now we're pros at running a tight ship. I've never felt more on top of my game."
The year of the side hustle
Beth Gillies, owner of the Bizzle Agency, a restaurant marketing and public relations firm, was following the news from Bergamo, Italy, which was the early epicenter of COVID cases, and expected similar shutdowns would be coming to Minnesota. Bracing for the impact on her industry, she applied for jobs in retail. Now, she's working in a liquor store and as a grocery shopper.
"I can remember that feeling of hearing about a shutdown and how we'd never really experienced anything like that since 9/11. I could see the writing on the wall and knew that restaurants were going to be impacted. Marketing and PR are needed, but they're not front-line staff making and preparing food. Of course, the focus in spending is going to go to the employees and to the day-to-day needs of the business. I personally stopped invoicing in March. It was like, what are you going to do? Take blood from a stone? I wanted to continue working, so I immediately went out and applied for part-time jobs in the grocery stores, anywhere that was going to be an essential business that was going to stay open. I started working in the liquor store in April and it's been really good in many ways. It's been a regular routine. It's kept me interacting with people. We're kind of like bartenders. It makes it seem so much longer and so much heavier to think back to January, February and early March, we were going about having openings and lunches and group gatherings and now, even seeing pictures of them makes us uncomfortable. I don't know if PR and marketing will ever go back to pre-pandemic business."
The year of loss
John and Midori Flomer, who own Midori's Floating World Cafe, were already struggling through the shutdown when civil unrest following the police killing of George Floyd came to their Lake Street business' door. Their building was so heavily damaged, John Flomer said, that they don't know if or when the 17-year-old Japanese restaurant can return. (In the meantime, they're opening a three-night-a-week takeout pop-up at Seward Cafe beginning in January.)
"It was the same story with all of the restaurants: We took a major hit because of the virus. And then the civil unrest occurred. We were sitting out there as witnesses to everything, because we were half a block from the Third Precinct. We saw it all. When you see that kind of thing, you think, well, it can't get any worse. And then it gets worse. And then it keeps getting worse until finally when those blocks went up in flames and nobody's coming to help, we're thinking this is bad. At that point we got out of there. Left everything and went home. Where a lot of the buildings around us burned down, we're still standing, but we don't have a business. And it's not only the restaurant that we have to deal with, it's the entire neighborhood. It's a desert. 2020 — it's been a nightmare."
The year of surrender
Ann Kim, chef/co-owner of Vestalia Hospitality, whose portfolio includes Young Joni and Pizzeria Lola, opened a new restaurant this year at the Omni Viking Lakes Hotel. She also began supplementing business by selling par-baked pizzas and jarred kimchi, while her other dining rooms remained closed.
"It's been a roller coaster. I think the uncertainty has probably been the hardest for us. This is the hardest thing that I've ever had to go through, not only in my profession but in my life. And it's done an emotional, mental, physical toll. But I think persistence and resilience and creativity has kept us forging ahead. I was talking to a girlfriend of mine last night who said she had finally been able to have a relaxing, lazy weekend. She said, 'I don't know if I'm just getting used to this, or what.' And I said, 'I think you just finally surrender to what is.' You just surrender to the moment. We're trying to stay present and basically just control what we can. The things that we can't, we try not to worry about it, because it's ultimately not worth it."
The year of protocols
Although he was vigilant, Josh Thoma, co-owner of Smack Shack and the Lexington, contracted COVID-19. He was down for the count for two weeks. "It's not a joke, it's rough," he said. "One thing that was nice — well, there wasn't anything nice about it — was that I hadn't been in the restaurants prior to getting COVID, so I wasn't concerned about spreading it." He and his partners have invested in some serious pandemic-related equipment.
"We have always had safety protocols in place, but we also put in U/V-lighting air filtration systems at both restaurants. It was not only a safety measure for the guests, but also for the staff who are working there eight hours a day. That was important to us. We ordered them in early April, and the demand was so high that we didn't get them installed until maybe early August. At Smack Shack, we added a patio heater system. It's an infrared system, designed to work in a cold climate. You can sit comfortably out there to around 10 degrees. In some ways, it's over-engineered. If the air temperature is 30 degrees, it's a little too warm [laughs]. So far, this December weather would have been ideal, if we'd been open. We had some of our busiest weeks right before the shutdown. But who knows what will happen? It's impossible to forecast. No one has a crystal ball that even remotely matches this model. We'll wait and see. We're gearing up for a cold, stark winter of to-go and delivery."