7With the COVID-19 pandemic turning the restaurant industry upside down, the longtime co-owner of a popular downtown Faribault restaurant is forging a new path forward.
Since 1998, Janna Viscomi has co-owned and operated Bernie’s Grill in downtown Faribault. Over that time, the restaurant has become something of a Faribault institution, offering hearty breakfast and lunch specials in a casual setting.
As the restaurant flourished, Viscomi expanded her business, offering residential suites on the upper floors. She also renovated the third floor of her building to offer a ballroom, though she converted it back to residential recently.
Viscomi’s ambitions even moved beyond her business and into the realm. In 2014, she ran for and won a seat on the City Council. Though she narrowly lost her 2016 bid for Mayor, she was returned to council in 2018, easily receiving the most votes of any candidate.
When the pandemic hit, Viscomi’s business was dramatically impacted. Though she briefly attempted to offer curbside service, it was quickly scrapped and the business closed its doors altogether in late March.
Even before the pandemic hit, Viscomi said that increases in labor costs and other changes to the market had made her business model more tenuous than in years past. After more than two decades of hard work, she started looking for a potential buyer. Viscomi said that with profit margins declining, flaws in the restaurant’s business model became clear. She said it was very difficult to quickly and efficiently produce food because so many orders came with special instructions.
“You’d get 350 orders, of which 150 of them had substitutions,” she said. “Every single order I did had ‘no cheese, with cheese, add this, take away that.’ I’ve been a private chef for 25 years.”
As an alternative to the traditional model, Viscomi has come up with a model that combines restaurant, convenience store and market. Fans of the traditional hearty breakfasts served at Bernie’s will still be able to get what they want, other options will be available as well.
Viscomi plans on opening the restaurant, soon to be known as “Janna’s Market Grill,” in September. She said that given the overall business model, it made sense to leave behind the restaurant’s old name, even though it had served well for nearly 25 years.
In the meantime, she’s renovated the interior from top to bottom, giving it the look and feel of a casual outdoor market. Coolers and shelves now line the interior of what once used to be a much more open layout.
Fans of the hearty breakfasts offered at Bernie’s will still be able to get their fix, though hours are a bit more limited. Viscomi said hot food would be provided from 9 am to noon, whereas before the restaurant had been open from 6 to 2.
Favorites like specialized omelets, and biscuits and gravy are just one part of what Viscomi’s new business will offer. Customers will also be able to get ready to eat “grab and go” meals, stored in a cooler and good for up to a week after purchase.
“If you’re living on your own, you could get meals like enchiladas or spaghetti,” she said. “If you’re feeding a larger family, you could get cooked meat in bulk and add it to tacos, tortillas or a salad kit.”
Along with ready to go meals, Viscomi said the market will offer some frozen and dry goods along with basic items that one might expect to find at a small store, like dish soap, basic medication and even books.
At the heart of the project is an effort to make high-quality food available in a way that is both simpler to cook and more accessible. She said that since the pandemic has hit, people have become more reliant on convenience stores to meet their basic needs.
Viscomi thinks the Market Grill could be a particularly good fit for the downtown area. With the 45-unit Hillside Apartments recently completed and several other projects in the works, she said a large and growing downtown clientele is looking for additional dining options.
While convenience stores may offer more safety and accessibility than traditional restaurants, Viscomi noted their selection is often limited and the quality dubious. She thinks markets like hers could play an important role in improving food distribution.
In particular, she highlighted the challenges faced by older Americans scared of the pandemic, and persons of limited mobility. In addition, she said the Market Grill could be particularly popular during the winter months.
“We have to think about serving our community better,” she said. “This is a way to safely and efficiently feed people.”
Thanks to the new model, Viscomi said she looks forward to even taking the occasional day off. She said the work of assembling prepackaged meals and grab and go breakfasts is a simpler task, one other restaurant staff could be trained to complete.
“Maybe I can head down to Arizona for a few days,” she said with a laugh. “I’m so ready to not be the person who cooks every meal.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across Minnesota, with more than 50,000 lab confirmed cases and 5,000 hospitalizations, its impact is being felt unequally across the state.
On Friday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported six additional deaths from COVID, bringing the state’s total to exactly 1,600 since the start of the pandemic. Forty additional deaths are considered “Probable COVID deaths,” but unconfirmed due to lack of a positive test.
In total, 1,223 of those deaths, or 76%, have occurred in long-term care or assisted living facilities, even though the vast majority of those who have contracted COVID live in private residences. Though average age of a COVID patient has decreased markedly from the start of the pandemic, with the 20-29 age bracket now having the most confirmed cases according to MDH, the average age of COVID deaths and hospitalizations has remained stubbornly high.
Recognizing the specific danger of outbreaks in nursing homes and senior care facilities, the Minnesota Department of Health began releasing comprehensive statistics on the number of cases in each facility throughout the state in April. When the data was first released, MDH reported that 47 care facilities had at least one infection. As of Friday, that number had ballooned to some 170, even though MDH earlier this month began allowing facilities with no active cases in the last 28 days to take themselves off the list.
The state’s numbers would seem to suggest that local nursing homes and care facilities have done an admirable job of keeping residents safe. As of Friday, not a single Rice County or Steele County care facility was listed in the MDH’s tally.
Rice County Public Health Director Deb Purfeerst attributed that success in avoiding COVID spread to aggressive measures implemented by local care facilities, in coordination with local public safety officials.
“We have been very fortunate to have very few lab-confirmed cases in our assisted living facilities, skilled nursing facilities and group homes,” she said. “I attribute that to the measures they took early on to protect residents.”
In Faribault, Fire Chief Dustin Dienst, who’s also the city’s emergency response coordinator, has been in touch with local care facilities since the beginning of the pandemic, helping them to implement workable and effective policies within the MDH’s guidelines.
Compared to before the pandemic, residents have seen major changes in their daily lives. An assiduous regime of testing has been implemented at facilities throughout the state and group activities were initially halted and are just now starting to return with extensive precautions.
Citing the need for increased person to person contact, the Minnesota Department of Health allowed in person visits outdoors last month, but only under a set of strict guidelines. Indoor visits were allowed starting earlier this month.
Dienst said that although each care facility has a slightly different setup, all indoor visits are conducted under a very strict set of guidelines issued by MDH, including at least 6 feet of distance, masks, ample hand sanitizer and no sharing of food or drinks.
Throughout the region, facilities with cases are generally few and far between. However, local facilities listed included Central Health Care in Le Center, Benedictine Court in St. Peter, Lake Shore Inn Nursing Home in Waseca, and Whispering Creek in Janesville.
Robert Benson, who serves as Director of Nursing at Whispering Creek, said that the one contracted worker tested positive for COVID during regular tests on July 15. He said that no positive tests have come up since.
In order to keep Whispering Creek’s residents safe, Benson said that the facility has taken a wide variety of steps, from increasingly relying on “virtual health care” to providing each staffer with a surgical level mask to increased cleaning.
“There’s so much we’ve done, I could write a book about it,” he said with a laugh.
Benson said he regularly participates in phone calls to learn both the latest requirements and recommendations needed to keep residents and patients safe. He said the facility has gone to particularly great lengths to ensure residents can safely see their loved ones in person.
Last month, the care facility had a “resident parade,” where residents were brought outside. Sitting at least 6 feet apart, in keeping with social distancing guidelines, they were able to see their loved ones drive by the facility.
Benson said that three outdoor stations have also been set up to allow residents to visit with their loved ones at a safe distance. A staff member oversees such conversations, in part to ensure that guidelines are being carefully followed.
Indoor visits are also possible thanks to the ample room provided in the facility’s sunroom. To help ensure that residents can hear their loved ones, grant dollars have been secured to purchase headsets.
“We’ve managed to purchase quite a few headsets for the hard of hearing,” he said. “We’re very glad to have been able to do that.”
Sharon Lennartson, tribal headwoman of the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota Community, exploded with joy when she learned of the Faribault Dakota Project in the works.
“I yelled and screamed to my boys, “Somebody’s finally going to listen,’” Lennartson recalls. I wanted every bit to be a part of it.”
In partnership with the Faribault Heritage Preservation Commission, Rice County Historical Society, Faribault Mural Society and Santee Sioux Nation, the Mendota Dakota Community will offer historical insight to a project that will honor the Dakotas’ impact on Faribault’s early years.
Jeff Jarvis, a Faribault artist, designer and historian, connected with Lennartson after taking the lead on the project.
The idea for the memorial began several months ago when the commission became aware of a hand-drawn map that illustrated where Native Americans had lived on city namesake Alexander Faribault’s property after the Dakota Uprising. Faribault and Bishop Henry Whipple both wanted to protect the Dakota, who had helped Minnesota settlers during the U.S.-Dakota War, from being banished from the state.
Although the HPC initially envisioned land near the River Bend Nature Center as the location for the Faribault Dakota memorial, the new options include Peace Park, the Buckham Memorial Library Plaza and Heritage Park. The project is expected to begin in 2021.
Jarvis plans to combine written word, artwork and photography to depict the story of the Faribault Dakota on a three-panel interpretive sign. The panels will provide backstory of the Faribault Dakota community, including a history of the Wahpekute, partnerships that supported Native Americans in Faribault, maps, timelines, photos of tribe leader and Dakota verbiage with English translations.
“The Heritage Preservation Commission wants to get a little more deep information and backstory of the actual Native descendant stories in there, which I agree on because we don’t want to rewrite their history again,” Jarvis said. “That’s been done 100 times by white people.”
The project as a whole will signify the two branches of Dakota that lived in Faribault — the Wahpekute and the Mdewakanton. The Wahpekute lived on Faribault land long before the Mdewakanton, which are depicted on the 1895 map Rice County Historical Society Director Susan Garwood shared. As he met with the Mendota Dakota Community, Jarvis learned nearly everyone on the tribal council is a descendant of someone who lived in one of the houses on the map.
“That was the first time any of us at the office had seen [the map],” Lennartson said.
One of the houses on the map is labeled “LeClair,” which could refer to Lennartson’s great-grandfather, Wakon LeClair, who was Alexander Faribault’s helper. Lennartson explained “Wakon” means “holy,” and her great-grandfather was a medicine man or spiritual advisor. Her family tree also contains Faribaults and a common ancestor with Chief Little Crow, acclaimed leader of the Mdewakanton from 1846 to 1863.
Thinking about the project and what it means to have her people recognized, Lennartson recalls the tragic stories of her late grandparents, Lily and Albert LeClair. Her grandmother died at her Mendota home after the medical staff at a hospital failed to take proper care of her, and her grandfather, who broke his back in a car accident on the reservation, was turned away by another hospital because he was a Native American. He suffered for months because the hospital that did take him in didn’t have the proper medical equipment to treat his broken back, and Lennartson said he “died of a broken heart.”
Lennartson herself was not raised Native, but she and other Mdewakanton descendants started the Mendota Dakota Community nearly 25 years ago to return to their roots. Other members of the tribal council will have opportunities to share their input for the Faribault Dakota Project, and so will members of the Santee Sioux Nation and Lower Sioux Agency.
The Mendota Dakota people have been in Minnesota for thousands of years, Lennartson said, and Dakota ancestors and descendants have been in Mendota for over 130 years. She and the others in the Mendota Dakota community are related to Chief Cetanwakanmani, Chief Taoyatwduta from the 1862 war, and Chief Wabasha as well as Agathe Winona Red Woman Angelique DuPuis Renville and Mazasnawin Iron Woman Rosalie Freniere. Some of their ancestors are from Little Crow's village, Kaposia.
“This is about as happy as I’ve ever been,” Lennartson said of the announcement of the Faribault Dakota Project. “It’s time … Just to know that different families are recognized and not forgotten — they’ll never be forgotten.”
Health and safety guidelines may prohibit Faribault’s 84th annual Pet Parade from going on as usual, but the Parks and Recreation Department deemed it important enough to continue in a different way.
Instead of animals and their humans marching on foot — or paw — this year, participants will drive or ride in vehicles. Even residents without pets can get in the lineup this year by applying a bit of creativity.
“Normally we will judge different categories, but this year, we’re just encouraging people to decorate their car,” said Jill Strodtman, youth program supervisor for Faribault Parks and Recreation. “… They can kind of go with a summer-themed look or a pet-themed look. Traditionally we have a theme, but this year we just left it as the basic pet parade.”
The pet parade will kick off at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 6 at the Rice County Fairgrounds. The parade route will head southbound on Second Avenue from the fairgrounds exit, turn west on Fourth Street, head north on Lincoln Avenue and make its final turn on Sixth Avenue Northwest. The parade will end at the corner of Central Park, on Third Avenue Northwest.
Strodtman said participants should arrive in their vehicles at the Rice County Fairgrounds at 6 p.m. Thursday for staging. Participants usually register for the parade in advance, but this year, anyone who wishes to drive in the lineup simply needs to arrive at the fairgrounds at the scheduled time.
Parade goers are free to step outside their homes to watch the vehicles pass by, but this year’s route also allows for spectators to park in specific spots to watch from their own cars. Onlookers are expected to follow social distancing guidelines and obey traffic laws.
Like previous years, the fun continues after the parade ends. Central Park will host entertainment like a children’s DJ and a youth spirit team pom pom dance at 7:30 p.m. at the park band shelter. Crowd limitations will be enforced.
The Faribault Pet Parade began 84 years ago during the Great Depression, when families were looking for fun and inexpensive forms of local entertainment. The tradition has evolved over the years to include additional activities after the parade, and this year will mark the first vehicle-only parade in the history of the event.