If you ever have attended Opening Day at Target Field, you know the only area jammed with more Twins fans than Target Field Plaza before the first pitch is a stretch of restaurants along First Avenue.
The downtown patios and bars at Kieran’s Irish Pub, Cowboy Jack’s, the 508 Bar and Restaurant, O’Donovan’s Irish Pub, the Depot Tavern, the Loon Cafe and Gluek’s Restaurant & Bar fill with dark-blue Twins jackets, baby-blue Twins jerseys, red Twins hats and the rolling, chattering hum of expectation.
Next Thursday was supposed to be the Twins’ 11th Opening Day at Target Field and the first of 81 home games in one of the franchise’s most anticipated seasons.
Instead the spread of the COVID-19 virus has led Major League Baseball to suspended all activities indefinitely, and all of those bars and restaurants are closed for the time being.
The combination of those two outcomes — not just the state of Minnesota order to close all dine-in restaurants, but also the total shutdown of sports — has put sports bars and restaurants in the Twin Cities in a difficult situation.
“For Gluek’s, we survive on events,” said operator Dave Holcomb, whose family has owned the restaurant since 1934. “We’re obviously kitty-corner from Target Center, a block from Target Field, even First Avenue people going to shows, we get a big push for those concerts, even the Hennepin Theater District.
“At least 75 percent of our income is based on events. We completely rely on it. Even if they allow the restaurants to open back up, but the Twins are a month out or the Wolves season is over, it’s going to be tough going anyway without the events.”
Holcomb said that when the city started postponing sporting events, the writing was on the wall.
“They canceled the boys’ basketball tournament and then the NCAA wrestling tournament at U.S. Bank Stadium was going to be here; even the Twins first two weeks got canceled and this was early March,” he said, recalling that he thought then “something must be going on more than I know, and more serious than I know.”
And while he’s optimistic that events will return and restaurants will reopen, he is worried for his staff.
The National Restaurant Association estimated that in 2019, restaurant and food-service jobs accounted for 9% of employment in Minnesota, and in 2018 the estimated sales in restaurants around the state was $10.7 billion.
Some sports bars are trying to rally amid this sports shutdown. Gluek’s tried doing curbside delivery for a day but quickly realized their food wasn’t thought of as takeout. Other sports bars are trying takeout, as well.
For Holcomb’s staff, a lifeline came from a GoFundMe campaign that has raised over $3,000.
“One of our best customers did that for us, did it all on his own,” Holcomb said. “That’s good for the staff to keep them in a little bit of money.”
A new rhythm
Rob Germinaro, the general manager of Alary’s in St. Paul six blocks away from the Xcel Energy Center, said it continues to serve customers with curbside pickup.
He’s focused on helping customers, not on the restaurant being hurt by forces outside its control.
“We’re seeing a steady-but-definitely-there uptick in sales everyday once people find out that their most beloved or favorite restaurants are open,” Germinaro said. “… For my own family, it’s a kind of a shock, and it made everything very real. Everyone is trying to find a new rhythm for what the world is now.”
Germinaro said the return of sports will mean more than just the return of normalcy to his restaurant.
“I think getting sports back is important to the nation,” he said. “Sports does a lot of different things for a lot of different people. For some people, it’s entertainment, for some an excuse to get together with neighbors and family. Sports does a different thing for every person.”
Rick Montpetit owns Gabe’s by the Park with his two brothers Kevin and Dan. Two weeks ago, he was getting his NCAA tournament bracket challenge ready for the restaurant.
“March Madness was right around the corner, and for us as well as any bar in the country, especially the first weekend — that Thursday, Friday, those afternoons you have multiple games on all the time throughout the entire day. Those two days especially are always big,” Montpetit said. “[Customers] leave work early or come out on their lunch break. You have all the brackets; every year we run our own bracket with a cool prize, and we had that all set up.”
The Wild was on a playoff push, too, and a lot of sports fans were getting excited for the Twins season — more reasons the coronavirus changed the landscape of his business.
“We have the TVs on now for something to watch, and all the sports are reruns,” he said. “Even if we were open right now or we did get back to the point where we’re open and the sports aren’t on, it’s going to be interesting. ... ESPN is quite different from [what] it was a month ago.”
Gabe’s still is offering curbside takeout and Montpetit said that his wife, who works in health care, is making sure he’s up to date on all of the CDC information on sanitation.
“As soon as anyone walks in, they wash their hands for 20 seconds — sanitizing between every order. Any time you take off gloves: wash. Before you put on gloves: wash,” he said. “We have a table set up outside so no face-to-face [orders]. Payments over the phone. Car pulls up, we run the food out, set it down, we get back inside and then they can grab the food. Keep health and safety first.”
Montpetit did mention one positive outcome of all this: Several regulars have stepped up to help the restaurant.
“We have a very loyal customer base, a lot of regulars here,” he said. “They have done a good job of showing their support, whether it’s getting curbside takeout or buying large gift card purchases.
“We have been pretty active on social media. Facebook, Instagram … people commenting and staying in touch. We’re trying to staying in touch with our community.”
Germinaro believes the return of restaurants and sports will mean so much because the world will get to focus on something besides a pandemic.
“It’ll be exciting to get back to that,” he said. “I’m curious to see how the sports world navigates the return of sports, whether it’s completing a season or not completing a season. But I’m most excited for a world where that’s something we can focus on.”