VERNDALE, MINN. - The fish houses are full, but nobody's landing any crappies.

Instead, diners in this central Minnesota town are reeling in chicken, steak and French fries in the parking lot outside the Pirates Den.

As the temperature last week dipped into single digits, servers hustled through the cold night bearing platters of food and cocktails to patrons basking in the glow of space heaters in the kind of village usually spotted on wintertime Minnesota lakes.

"We love it! It just feels so Minnesotan," said Becky Munston, who made the 30-mile trip from Perham to celebrate the birthdays of her husband, Mike, and their friend Tim Wacker.

In a nearby hut, Judy Erdahl and Brenda Windels, both of Wadena, were enjoying their first restaurant meal in a long time.

"Why not?" Erdahl said. "Everything else is just drive-through or takeout."

Erdahl and Windels said they weren't worried about dining safely together. Both are longtime health care workers; Windels is a retired registered nurse, and Erdahl screens patients for COVID-19 at the hospital.

By 6 p.m., six of the eight fish houses were filled with groups of two to five diners, a good turnout for a winter weeknight. It's what Pirates Den owner Brian Hagen was hoping for when he set up the fish houses in mid-December.

"People are so sick of the confinement and not being able to go out," Hagen said. "Since we first posted it on Facebook, the phone has been ringing off the wall."

Hagen, who owns a small-engine shop, lawn service and fish house manufacturing company, said the idea came to him when he looked at some unsold fish houses in his inventory. Why not use them at the restaurant?

"People are fed up with the COVID and the shutdown," he said. "They want to get out, have a cocktail, have a meal prepared for them."

Hagen said he checked with both the Wadena County health department and Sheriff's Office and got their blessings for his plan, which includes masked servers and sanitization of each fish house after use. County health officials could not be reached for comment.

Hagen bought the empty restaurant on busy Hwy. 10, formerly known as Maasconi's Char & Bar, in the fall. He's adding gas pumps and a convenience store.

It was odd timing, he acknowledged: "My buddies looked at me like, 'What the hell? Who buys a bar and restaurant in the middle of a pandemic?' "

But he's a serial entrepreneur, and he's betting that business will boom if and when Gov. Tim Walz lifts restrictions on indoor dining, perhaps as soon as mid-January.

Until then, the fish house village will help keep his small staff employed and spread the word about the new restaurant. Hagen said he is considering keeping it going all winter.

He's already getting return customers such as Amanda Witthuhn, who had dinner there earlier last month and then brought her sister, Jensyn Schluttner, for a second visit. Both live in Verndale.

"I loved it," Witthuhn said, "and I told her, 'We gotta do this.' "

"Who doesn't want to eat in a fish house?" Schluttner said with a laugh and a shrug.

As the evening went on and more diners showed up, Hagen's son Torii fired up the heaters and brushed snow from the roofs. One local business, Kal's Motor Group of Wadena, seized a marketing opportunity and loaned Hagen a deluxe Glacier fish house.

The diners were clearly enjoying themselves. As more cocktails arrived, the joint Munston-Wacker birthday celebration got livelier.

"We are not ice fishing people," Becky Munston said with a laugh, "so this is as close as we get."

John Reinan • 612-673-7402