DULUTH – Ursa Minor Brewing was looking into how it could get permission to use its parking lot as an extended patio. Duluth Grill owner Tom Hanson ordered $3,800 worth of picnic tables and $1,200 worth of garbage cans.
Restaurant owners scrambled Wednesday to scrape together plans after Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement to allow establishments to open only for outdoor service June 1.
Many were disappointed and caught off guard by Walz’s decision, which they had expected to give them the green light to use their dining rooms, at least in a limited capacity.
“Outdoor dining for Duluth is an absolute nonfactor because we have Lake Superior in our backyard,” which means fickle weather and generally chilly conditions, said Hanson, who owns a few other popular restaurants in town.
He’d been working to cut a hole in the wall to expand his OMC Smokehouse into the space next door that now houses his Noble Pour cocktail lounge — more room for social distancing. He’d ordered plexiglass to separate booths and planned to have extra staff at each shift for designated tasks, like opening doors and sanitizing bathrooms.
If restaurants’ Paycheck Protection Program federal relief runs out during this period, Hanson said he may have to temporarily close his operations altogether — as he did at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak — to avoid losing money at greater margins.
“None of us are in a sustainable business model right now,” said Brian Daugherty, president of Grandma’s Restaurant Co.
He added that never in his 44 years in the industry “have I been 100% dependent on the government,” which controls fate-deciding factors like what loans he’ll get and when he can reopen.
Daugherty is meeting Thursday with staff to explore how to open outdoor dining while his restaurants’ larger indoor spaces must remain closed. He had already planned to add some seating for those who might be more comfortable dining out in the open air — across from the existing patio at his Bellisio’s Italian Restaurant, for instance, and the plaza area in front of Little Angie’s Cantina and Grill in Canal Park.
Duluth’s City Council passed a measure last week waiving certain fees and pledging to expedite the permitting process to assist restaurants looking to adapt their outdoor areas. At Tuesday’s meeting, council members will vote on a resolution to reduce liquor license fees for the year.
The city is trying to help businesses use parking lots and other unconventional spaces for outdoor dining, expand sidewalk use permits and ease outdoor alcohol restrictions.
Mayor Emily Larson said there is a lot that municipalities can do, and Duluth is “doing everything we can locally with policymaking to make sure restaurants feel supported and have that elbow room to make social distance operations work.”
“I don’t envy our politicians’ positions,” said Ben Hugus, CEO and co-founder of Ursa Minor. “They’re making decisions over the life or death of people and businesses.”
His Lincoln Park brewery, known for its wood-fired pizzas in addition to its beers, is hoping to bring back a few of its furloughed employees to help if outdoor business ramps up.
“It will really come down to the community response,” he said. “If our neighbors aren’t ready to go out to businesses and start eating out and drinking at bars and restaurants, then we may not be able to keep everyone around.”
Staff writer Pam Louwagie contributed to this report.