DULUTH – Restaurant and bar owners are calling the $28 billion in grants included in the federal coronavirus stimulus package a lifeline for Duluth's hard-hit tourism industry.
For Jason Vincent, owner of the Boat Club and Vanilla Bean restaurants in Duluth and Two Harbors, the grants give a needed layer of certainty as vaccines reach more people and business slowly returns to normal.
Vincent's restaurant group lost nearly $1 million last year, a 25% drop in revenue tied largely to the disappearance of banquet business.
"We have taken out all the loans we can," he said. "We have mortgaged ourselves to the max. This money is grants, and that's what our industry needs right now."
Mayor Emily Larson called the overall relief package, which includes $60 million for the city, a lighthouse.
"This is the ability for us to shine bright as a city amid the dark of this pandemic," she said.
Minnesota lost 31% of its restaurant and bar jobs between January 2020 and January 2021, according to state data that reflects the week those businesses were allowed to open indoors again. With a higher percentage of its workers in hospitality compared with other cities, Duluth's economy took a bigger beating even as many restaurants managed to stay open.
"I want to be able to come here in a month or two and see more people," Sen. Amy Klobuchar said Sunday afternoon as she stopped at the Boat Club restaurant. "And if we're going to do that, we need to make sure it stays open."
Klobuchar also visited the Block Food & Drink in St. Louis Park on Sunday to talk up the $1.9 trillion relief package. In Duluth, she said she wants the industry to make it through the pandemic "so we're not dug so deep in this hole that we can't bounce back when things get better."
Paycheck Protection Program funds were a necessary bridge, Vincent said, but uncertainty remains over how much, if any, needs to be paid back.
He said positive signs for the year include a recent streak of solid weekend bookings at Fitger's Inn, in the same complex as the Boat Club, and summer weekend events booked at the restaurant. But weekday business has been slowest as business travel remains limited.
Boat Club bartender Samantha Lindbeck, a mother of two, was out of work during the two state shutdowns last spring and late fall. She said the relief package is "really helpful."
"It gives us a safety net we don't usually have in this industry," she said. "So it will be nice to have something in case my car breaks down."