In an 1889 building in St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill, black cloths drape over every other marble table, with clusters of lit candles in their centers.
In an effort to protect guests from the possible spread of the coronavirus, the St. Paul restaurant W.A. Frost is effectively blacking out alternating tables, reducing its capacity by 50%.
Though social distancing hasn’t been mandated, Commonwealth Properties, which owns W.A. Frost and its sister restaurant the Commodore, announced the decision Thursday to keep dining groups six feet apart from one another.
“Social distancing is the best way to flatten the curve, and the way that’s in our power to do so is asking citizens to practice it now,” said Stephanie Rupp, co-owner of Commonwealth Properties. “We thought we could help.”
In anticipation of the coronavirus spreading in Minnesota, some local restaurateurs are seeking creative ways to adapt to customer fears while bracing for a downturn in foot traffic and bookings. Even restaurants that haven’t noticed a slowdown in customers are seeing signs that a new era in dining may have already arrived.
The dining rooms remain full at Parasole restaurant group properties, which include Manny’s Steakhouse, Burger Jones and the Good Earth. But it’s clear that things are beginning to change, said COO Donna Fahs. For one thing, the bathroom tissue is going missing.
“The thing I have heard from some of the restaurants is people are stealing toilet paper to stock up at home,” Fahs said.
The virus is not transmitted through food, and restaurants already follow stringent standards when it comes to cleanliness. Some are adding still more precautions to ease any potential concerns.
Parasole restaurants have eliminated holders for guest checks, and have offered servers a stylus to punch orders into computers. Kim Bartmann, who owns restaurants in Minneapolis, including Red Stag Supperclub and Barbette, is planning to install hand-sanitizer stations in her dining rooms. So is Tim Niver in his restaurants (Mucci’s Italian, Saint Dinette). In addition to the usual cleaning, Jester Concepts restaurants are reminding staff to wipe down every nook, like the backs of chairs and bar stools.
“Restaurants are really clean,” said Mike DeCamp, chef for Jester’s P.S. Steak, Monello and others. “There aren’t many places that get inspected as religiously as we do. We have a lot of standards that we have to follow.”
At Surly’s Brewing Company’s Minneapolis campus, home to two restaurants, doors get an extra wipedown before closing and again when it opens, said Surly spokeswoman Tiffany Jackson. “You’re cleaning constantly,” she said. “And we’re trying to remain as calm and positive as possible.”
With its large outdoor seating area, and uncharacteristically warm March weather, Surly’s business has been holding steady. Its on-site summer concert series with First Avenue, which starts in May, is still scheduled.
At the same time, “we’re conscious there are downtimes and we staff accordingly, keep a close eye on trends and see how the industry is responding,” Jackson said. “The biggest thing is to keep employees and customers safe.”
Restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul are mandated to offer paid sick leave to employees. And the state health department requires employee illnesses to be logged.
Randy Stanley, who owns 6Smith in Wayzata and Baldamar in Roseville, suburbs that don’t require sick leave, said he would consider adding it to encourage under-the-weather employees to stay home. “That’s an opportunity,” Stanley said. “I think I will investigate it.”
Stanley’s restaurants may actually be benefiting from coronavirus fears, as people cancel their spring break and other travel plans. “It’s staycation,” he said, “which means ‘Let’s go out for dinner.’ ” The only difference he’s noticed lately: Customers are getting up a lot more to wash their hands.
Several high-end restaurant owners say they, too, are not seeing a decline in customers, especially among walk-ins. But future reservations are slumping for some, and private events and catering orders are being canceled. Those bookings rarely come back.
Smaller shops, such as skyway restaurants, may be harder hit.
Wednesdays in late winter tend to be some of the busiest days at Andrea Pizza, in the Capella Tower skyway in downtown Minneapolis.
But this past Wednesday, owner Francesco Gambino sent two of his staffers home early.
“This week was the first week I noticed a difference,” Gambino said from behind the pizza counter toward the end of a slower-than-usual lunch shift. As some office workers made the decision to stay home due to coronavirus fears, the downtown lunch crowd has diminished.
“For us, if people don’t come to work,” he said, “that’s tragic.”
Matty O’Reilly, who both owns and consults for several Twin Cities restaurants, is working with the Minnesota Restaurant Association to compile strategies for restaurants, should the cities go on lockdown as others have in China and Italy, or where social distancing rules are implemented, as in Seattle. Those ideas could include switching to delivery-only, or figuring out a budget with 25% less in sales.
Brainstorming ways to survive potential losses can feel a bit odd when business is currently booming, relative to this time last year, when severe winter weather pummeled the industry, O’Reilly said.
“The trend right now is a lot of people are up [in business] over last year, which is really encouraging,” he said. “It’s hard to tell if there’s a slowdown.”
Still, he is urging colleagues and peers to prepare. “I don’t think anybody has to be overly reactive today,” he said, “but to at least be thinking about those things isn’t the worst thing.”
In anticipation of a rise in takeout orders should diners choose to stay in, Bartmann is signing her restaurants up for more delivery services, such as UberEats. She’s imagining harsher scenarios, too, such as closing some restaurants entirely, or moving all delivery orders to one kitchen if needed.
“It’s hard to know,” she said. “We’re just exploring and trying to think it through and hope there’s another side. Is this the epidemic that will come and go, or is it a pandemic that is going to completely toast our universe, our economy and our jobs?”
Fahs said Parasole is taking the possible fallout from the virus very seriously, even if the restaurants are still busy.
“We are approaching it like we did when the stock market crashed in 2008, and we are also looking at what happened with 9/11,” she said. “Because the world as we knew it changed in both instances.”
Even then, however, Fahs saw how dining out could be an antidote to hard times.
“I’m just hopeful that people will not forget about restaurants,” she said. “You can still go out and escape some of the things going on in the world.”