Business is bouncing back at David Fhima's eponymous downtown Minneapolis restaurant. When theaters lifted their curtains for performances again in fall, Fhima noticed the energy switch on in the restaurant's spacious art deco dining room.
"It was amazing to see the restaurant busy at 5 o'clock," he said. "We are busier now than pre-COVID and we could double that literally."
But he won't.
As the restaurant business recovers from the pandemic's twists and turns, one thing is clear: Dining out will not snap back to 2019.
Remote workers are still not in the office or going out for lunch regularly. Private dining rooms aren't booked solid. And multiple challenges are still hitting restaurant owners and managers, such as rising ingredient costs, a shortage of workers and the still-mercurial trajectory of COVID-19.
What can customers expect: fewer available reservations. Higher prices. Your favorite cut of meat pulled from the menu. Limited opening hours. Cafeteria-style service replacing waited tables in some places. Patios staying open with heaters as temperatures fall. Takeout, maybe, but probably not at fine dining establishments that were offering it a year ago.
"The late night is gone. The happy hour is gone. Lunches are gone," Fhima said. "Events, booking 150 people at an event, are gone."
When and how customers can expect the dining scene to be as robust as before the pandemic is an open question.
"There's still a lot of concern," said Liz Rammer, president and CEO of industry trade group Hospitality Minnesota. "Like a lot of things in this pandemic, there's been no certainty in where we are at."
Even after all of the shuttered restaurants so far, an August survey by Hospitality Minnesota showed that 56% of operators were in jeopardy of closing. Nationally, 51% of restaurants weren't able to pay September rent, she said.
"That showed you it's a really mixed bag," Rammer said. "Some operators are reporting really good sales. Others are not."
Industry observers and restaurants in the Twin Cities are apprehensive about the snow and frigid temperatures to come. "When you get into winter, people tend to cocoon," Rammer said. "If you get a real snowy or cold winter, that really impacts people's desire to go to restaurants."
Besides staffing, the availability of food items and ingredients is an emerging issue. "We have some operators who have three to five menus because they aren't sure what's going to show up on the truck," she said.
Fhima said he normally changes his menu three or four times a year based on the seasons and local produce available. This year, he's revamped the menu eight times.
And a broad reckoning about the demands of work is affecting the business. Double shifts used to be common, but not anymore.
"People want that time off," Fhima said. "We're open seven days a week but our hours are limited. We're open at 4 and now we close at 9, 10. We used to close at midnight."
Even as demand returns to 2019 levels and higher, the Parasole Restaurants — which include Manny's Steakhouse, Good Earth, Pittsburgh Blue and Salut — aren't seating all tables because managers are struggling to find qualified servers.
"Our philosophy is we'll just play things very conservatively," founder Phil Roberts said. "We're not opening any new restaurants. We're not adding a whole bunch of menu items."
Punch Pizza has opened most locations for dine-in seating after going fully takeout for much of the pandemic. But its northeast Minneapolis and Highland Park locations are temporarily closed as it looks for workers.
Summer occupancy was high and conferences returned in fall to Grand View Lodge in Brainerd. So has demand for fine dining, said Frank Soukup, director of marketing.
But the resort has not opened its Cru Restaurant & Wine Bar with its temperature-controlled wine cellar, tasting bar and dining room. Visitors are filling its Char steakhouse and Northwoods Pub instead. "When we get more staff, we'll look at opening Cru next year," Soukup said.
By contrast, the neighborhood restaurant Tinto Kitchen in south Minneapolis hasn't had staffing problems, owner Rebecca Illingworth Penichot said. She attributes that to the benefits her small team of employees get: health coverage, paid vacation and, frequently, a two-day weekend.
Neighbors flock to her expanded outdoor seating under a tent in Tinto's parking lot to order margaritas and tacos whenever it's above 50 degrees. Most prefer to be outside in the expanded 50-seat area rather than in the 75-seat restaurant, whether as a health precaution or to enjoy good weather.
"I don't think we would have been able to successfully navigate this year without having the tent," she said.
But Penichot said she's nervous about next year.
She wants the city of Minneapolis to extend COVID-19 easing of permits so restaurants continue to have expanded outdoor seating. In return, she sees the city getting increased sales tax, a shot of vitality as customers dine al fresco and restaurants with expanded revenue.
"Besides the fact that a lot of people don't want to sit inside," said Penichot, "patio season is cherished here so it would help restaurants if they would offer some leniency."
Rammer of Hospitality Minnesota views these exceptions by cities for expanded patios and additional parking for curbside pickup as critical for the survival of restaurants.
"Every inch of revenue generation is important, especially since our last survey showed that 62% of restaurants and food service businesses took on debt and the average debt was $540,000," she said.
Hospitality Minnesota is advocating for another $60 billion in addition to the $28 billion federal Restaurant Revitalization Fund passed earlier this year after 1,700 establishments in the state received funds while 2,500 did not. "There is much greater need," Rammer said.
Government money and an outdoor beer garden at Utepils Brewing helped save the Minneapolis brewery last winter when it was forced to close because of a virus wave in November and December, said Dan Justesen, president of Utepils.
After Utepils added an outdoor three-sided pavilion, bonfire, heaters, tables and booked bands as well as warning guests to bundle up and wear practical winter boots, the tap room's business that included the beer garden set new monthly records. It was so popular that it will be up and running this winter, even as many may choose to congregate indoors again.
"On weekends in January, we had lines for 90 minutes waiting to get a table because everybody had to have a table under the rules," he said. "They just waited — without a beer even."