As Minnesotans have weathered the COVID-19 pandemic for the last several months, nearly everyone and every industry has faced challenging times. Across Northfield, restaurants have had to continually adapt in a constantly changing environment, ranging from a stay-at-home order to cautious re-openings slowly spreading across the area. Even now, as more people are venturing out for dine-in experiences, restaurants face new challenges, such as refilling staff positions and keeping everyone — from staff to customers — safe in difficult times.

But as challenging as the last six months have been, area restaurant owners have also shown an impressive dose of resourcefulness, creativity and tenacity — buoyed by the unwavering support of the surrounding community.

“Part of the beauty of this community is how it wants to celebrate local [businesses] and make sure that local people feel supported,” said Ruth Bolstad, owner of Ruth’s on Stafford in Dundas. “I’ve felt so supported by this community, and I very much appreciate it.”

Overhauling food services

When Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced his stay-at-home order in March, restaurants across the state scrambled to respond. Some simply shut down, but others — such as Fielders Choice Tap and Table in Northfield — found new ways to continue serving customers. At Fielders, service was switched to completely to-go orders, which customers could pick up and take home to eat.

According to Fielders Choice’s manager Jesse Bigjohn, business remained steady during the stay-at-home period, but it has slowed down as more places open up for regular dining again. Even now, with Fielders dining room open at reduced capacity, more than 50 percent of the restaurant’s sales still come from to-go orders.

“In the beginning, we had a lot of business,” Bigjohn said. “There were a lot of other restaurants that were closed down at the time, [and] we were one of the only ones still doing anything. But then the first week and a half of having the dining room open, it was slowed down tremendously.”

The Ole Store in Northfield was one of the restaurants that briefly shut down services entirely, which owner Alliya Lovestrand explained was so that she could come up with a plan for the safety of her staff and customers.

“I needed a little bit of time to really understand what this meant for the business and the restaurant,” Lovestrand said. “We were closed on and off a couple times during the stay-at-home order to give staff a break and give me time to prepare and make sure we were doing everything in the safest way possible.”

Lovestrand reopened for curbside takeout — where customers could pull up to the curb and a staff member would bring the food to their car — in April, saying that it was “really successful.” She also made the bold move of hiring a new chef in the middle of the pandemic, which gave her the chance to rework her menu and offer people something new even though her menu was limited overall.

She added that business stayed steady, even before she reopened her dining room at reduced capacity on June 16.

“People were so grateful that we were open and able to provide the limited menu options,” she said. “The community has been so, so supportive, and we’re so grateful.”

Bolstad’s business was affected a little differently, since she primarily caters events and puts together custom pick-up orders. Even before the pandemic swept through, Ruth’s on Stafford would take orders for Tuesday meals until Tuesday morning, and then customers would pick up their food on Tuesday afternoons. As catering events continued to be cancelled, Bolstad bulked up her to-go menu and also started offering the service on Friday nights as well. She also offers delivery to the surrounding area.

While Bolstad lost nearly all of her catering events for the last six months, she saw a steep increase in to-go orders initially as loyal customers rushed to support her.

“We had one Tuesday where we had a 200 percent increase in orders,” she recalled. “Numbers have come back down to petty normal for us, [with] Fridays a little bit slimmer [than Tuesdays]. But they’ve been keeping us afloat.”

Finding employees

While restaurants are slowly reopening now, many had to lay off employees during the stay-at-home order because business decreased so much. Bigjohn said that they “cut staff tremendously” at Fielders, stating that their staff shrunk from 40 in February to about eight during the first month of the stay-at-home order. Thanks to the Payroll Protection Program, which is offered through the U.S. Small Business Association, Bigjohn could afford to bring his staff back up to around 22.

At the Ole Store, Lovestrand also reduced staff, shrinking to a “core group” of around 15 — about 30 percent of her usual size. For Bolstad, the staff didn’t really change, since she already has such a small staff, but the ones who were there did take a pay cut. Instead, Bolstad’s friends volunteered to help, doing things such as the curbside takeout.

Now that business is picking up, some restaurants are having trouble filling vacant positions, especially because some former employees are paid more to not work, thanks to federal unemployment stimulus funds.

“Now with business picking up, we’re realizing that we’re missing a lot of the people,” Bigjohn said. “It doesn’t seem like we can find anyone to hire. It’s definitely the fact that you’re making more money sitting at home than coming to work, so it doesn’t really make sense for them. I’m sure we’ll get a bunch of applicants at the end of the month [when the unemployment supplement runs out].”

For Lovestrand, refilling her vacant positions won’t be as difficult, because most of her employees have been with the restaurant for several years and are eager to return to normal working hours.

“I’m still in regular communication with the whole staff,” she said. “We really have been lucky that there are just a lot of staff members who’ve been there for a long time, so we are not really hiring any new staff.”

Looking ahead

The road to reopening has been a rocky one, with stay-at-home extensions, changing announcements about outdoor and indoor dining restrictions and more. Now, as COVID-19 flare-ups have been breaking out across the country, the situation is uncertain once again.

Bigjohn set up patio dining in the parking lot at Fielders as soon as he was allowed, but dine-in seating was allowed only a week later, so he said he hasn’t had much use for his outdoor seating. His staff has been taking several safety precautions, from always wearing masks to sanitizing every table, chair and door handle after guests leave. Refills are brought in new cups, while every customer has interactions with only one staff member.

“We try to just keep the amount of interaction down as much as we can,” he said.

Indoor dining, which is open at 50 percent capacity, has been picking up “week to week” he said, though there’s still a “huge swing” in business. Because of the unpredictability, Bigjohn said he doesn’t plan on opening up his space any more in the near future.

The Ole Store is in the “first phase” of reopening, Lovestrand said, which includes limited hours in the dining room and 50 percent seating capacity. Like Fielders, staff members at the Ole Store wear masks at all times, while reservations are staggered to give enough time for deep cleaning between customers. Curbside pickup is still offered as well.

“I wanted to take it slowly, just because nobody really knows what the future holds,” she said. “The pace has made us feel really comfortable. It’s felt safe. For that, I’m really grateful, especially for the staff who are coming to work. A lot of people are still choosing to do [curbside], which we absolutely understand. We’re adjusting to what we feel like is the new normal of restaurants. There isn’t really a timeframe of when any of this is going to end.”

As to when things will return completely to pre-pandemic levels, she doesn’t have a firm date yet.

“If COVID-19 continues to decline in Minnesota and we feel like the way that we’re operating on a day-to-day level is safe for both staff and customers, I’d like to reopen the restaurant more and maybe offer more hours that we’re open,” she said. “That’s all dependent on the next couple weeks and the numbers of cases we see. I’m trying to be really conservative and safe in those next steps.”

“We can only live one day at a time, and do the best we can,” Bolstad agreed. “I think that’s what everybody’s doing. My hope is great. I have a mug that says, ‘My hope remains,’ and I got it long before all this happened. I still drink from it every day.”

Grace Brandt is a freelance reporter based in Mankato.

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