After five years of watching customer lines snake out its door and down the block, Afro Deli & Grill finally expanded its street-level restaurant in downtown St. Paul last year.
Three months later, the pandemic hit.
Indoor dining plunged 80% as downtown lunch and dinner customers disappeared into the world of remote work. Just when COVID looked like it was under control this summer, the delta variant surged, dimming hopes for a brilliant fall recovery.
Only about 35% of downtown workers have returned to their offices, far short of the 62% the city of St. Paul had expected by Labor Day.
"It's like taking two steps forward and one step back," Afro Deli co-owner and CEO Abdirahman Kahin said. "Maybe a month ago business was becoming normal. But now we see it slow down because companies asked their people to stay home again. Even in just the last few days, we see less and less people in St. Paul."
Afro Deli's journey embodies the ups and downs suffered by many downtown St. Paul businesses in the wake of COVID. More than 53 downtown bars, coffee shops, restaurants and theaters shut permanently or temporarily because of the pandemic, according to the St. Paul Downtown Alliance.
The rise of the highly contagious delta variant has now prompted many downtown St. Paul companies to postpone their return-to-work dates. Travelers won't bring its 2,100 St. Paul employees back in the office until at least mid-October. Many firms, like Securian Financial, reinstated mask mandates. And some will require workers to present proof of vaccination for the first time.
The citywide excitement for a mega Labor Day rebound has largely fizzled.
"I think we will probably pick up a little bit next week but it will be much more modest than I had expected a month ago," said Joe Spencer, president of the St. Paul Downtown Alliance.
To survive COVID-19, Afro Deli & Grill permanently closed its new St. Paul skyway location in the Alliance Bank building and temporarily shuttered its Minneapolis skyway restaurant until May of this year.
The newly expanded restaurant on W. 7th Place in the heart of downtown St. Paul focused on enhancing its takeout and outdoor patio service. The owners landed a contract from Ramsey County to make 800,000 meals for the city's homeless and elderly, which helped keep 30 staffers working.
The flower-lined outdoor patio still fills up at lunchtime as customers come for the lamb gyros, falafel sandwiches and "chicken fantastic," but indoor lunch business is just 45% of pre-COVID times, Kahin said. The dinner crowd has dropped by 80%.
"Now it's like a Monday every day," said Essence Sisco, a floor manager at Afro Deli. "Just semi-busy. At times, it's really been a ghost town down here."
Afro Deli's downtown St. Paul landlord, Kelly Brothers, halved the rent for 12 months. "It's still tough," Kahin said, but the reduced rent, plus a $35,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan and a $7,500 grant from the city "kept our doors open and let us pay our employees and rent."
Afro Deli & Grill, the Candyland shop next door and hundreds of other downtown shops have all limped through the pandemic by tapping into a mix of grants, loans, rent breaks, good weather, and sometimes a splash of luck and serendipity.
Hope surged this spring and summer as COVID-weary crowds swarmed outdoor patios across downtown St. Paul, to the Loon Cafe, the Bulldog Lowertown, Urban Wok and other once-bustling downtown hotspots.
Spirits further picked up this spring when St. Paul corporate giants such as Travelers, Wells Fargo, Ecolab, Securian Financial, U.S. Bank Center and others announced plans to recall downtown's 55,500 workers back into offices after the Fourth of July or Labor Day.
Without the expected rush of downtown workers, the city's skyways remain sparse and restaurants and shops like Afro Deli still face a challenge.
To help boost St. Paul's downtown economy, civic boosters unleashed a plan to host 300 outdoor concerts, movies, exercise and food events across downtown between June and October. The hope was to welcome workers back to the city's core and show them how clean, safe and fun the area is, the Downtown Alliance's Spencer said.
The effort has worked to a point, pulling in 500 to 2,000 people to Mears Park and Rice Park, CHS Field and other venues on certain nights and weekends. Some area small businesses saw more foot traffic and fresh sales as a result.
"Our Thursday night concerts in Mears Park are drawing 1,000 to 2,000 people," Spencer said, "and that is pretty consistent."
With delta's high contagion rate, however, the city and the Downtown Alliance dialed back plans for several mega block parties this fall.
The Subway sandwich shop in the eerily quiet skyway of Wabasha and 7th Street at Wells Fargo Place saw business rise after the adjacent Minnesota Children's Museum reopened in July. Some workers now worry museum foot traffic could slow again when school starts this month.
Subway's landlord deferred its rent along with a few other skyway tenants to help them get through the pandemic. But such aid may be harder to come by as time goes on, said Wells Fargo Place General Manager Patrick Skinner.
The uncertainty means the trendy Urban Wok restaurant, across the street from the massive Union Depot near 4th Street E. and N. Sibley Street, could continue to sit largely empty as workers stay home and 10,000 downtown residents revert to takeout orders instead of dining indoors, Urban Wok supervisor Rick McNeill said.
The restaurant started three years ago with a high-tech, fast-casual concept that relied on touchless online ordering, takeout and credit cards. When the pandemic first hit in March 2020, takeout orders jumped from 65% of business to 85%.
That reversed last spring as COVID ebbed, weather warmed and indoor and outdoor patio dining shot up.
But as delta surged in August, indoor dining sank like a rock. "It has slowed down definitely," McNeill said on a recent Monday afternoon when not a single customer was inside.
McNeill said efforts by the city and businesses to draw people downtown this summer with concerts, ice cream socials, games and other public events have helped, especially on nights and weekends.
Jon-Paul Franke opened his "The Eyes Train" eyeglass store in January 2021 across from the Union Depot light rail stop in Lowertown.
Thanks to the city's social events, night and weekend foot traffic rose this summer, and crowds were suddenly walking past his eyewear shop to get to a St. Paul Saints baseball game, the Farmers Market, concerts and food truck nights. Many stopped by later and bought glasses.
"I have been busier than I thought I would be," said Franke, who decided to shut his three San Francisco stores last year due to city ordinances surrounding COVID. He relocated to his former home of Minnesota and took a chance reopening in artsy Lowertown, two blocks from the Farmers Market. "Every month has been nice and consistent."
Even with the coronavirus pandemic's upheaval, there have been plenty of signs of life and sporadic bright spots, shop owners said. Park Square Theatre is beginning to host shows again on W. 7th Place. Downtown residents have stepped up to support bars, shops and restaurants, Franke and McNeill said. The line for popcorn and chocolates at Candyland on Wabasha Street still occasionally spills past the door.
But until the big employers reopen with full staffs, it will be a waiting game for the hospitality industry that serves them.
"Once all those major businesses down here open up fully, we will be back to full capacity in here," said the Afro Deli's manager Sisco, as she set out chairs and opened the restaurant on a recent quiet morning. "I can't wait to get back to that."