Despite some mild temperatures predicted for early next week, reality has set in that winter has arrived and the fun-in-the-sun months have come to an end.
While the arrival of winter welcomes in a plethora of joy – cozy socks, snow-globe mornings, and holly-jolly spirits – the cold weather this year has been dreaded by those in the hospitality business since the moment spring arrived.
“From day one, the very first day the governor shut us down in March, we started the conversation of how we are going to adapt,” said Bill Cronin, president of Mineral Springs Brewery in Owatonna, adding that within one week the business spent over $10,000 to purchase a canning machine and to develop an online store and reservation system – all driven by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “The beauty of the group is we perceived this all as challenges, and it’s been fun to adapt, but we also knew winter was coming.”
With the governor’s current executive order in relation to the pandemic, bars and restaurants can accommodate for 50% capacity of their indoor dining space and no bar seating. At MSB, Cronin said that would allow them to have only 43 seats available for customers.
“We never have 43 people in there,” Cronin said. “In reality, it would put as at about one-third of capacity because people would come in and, knowing they can’t stand around, see that there are already a handful of groups there and leave.”
Knowing their business would become more limited with winter, Cronin said the business partners began discussing alternatives to expanding their business while still keeping the public safe.
The solution to outdoor dining during Minnesota’s notorious winter months was almost too obvious: igloos.
Using the funding received through the city of Owatonna’s small business Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act grant program, Cronin said the business ordered five igloos to place on their patio with room to fit up to eight people per igloo and two space heaters approved by Ryan Seykora at the Owatonna Fire Department as well as Travis Ahrens with the Minnesota State Fire Marshal. Since the installation of the first igloos at the end of October, when online reservations started rolling in, they have been widely accepted by the public and appreciated by those who want to enjoy a night out of the house.
“We have already had a number of conversations with people who have said they’re not comfortable going out and being around other people, but that they’d love to be in one of the igloos,” Cronin said. He added that there will be a strict cleaning regiment between each 90-minute reservation, including a full sanitization, “fogging” of the air space, and opening the igloos up to completely air out – a 30-minute process.
While the brewery was fortunate to have the patio space to work with, Cronin said he is deeply worried about other restaurants in town that don’t have the same flexibility as they head deeper into the indoor-dining-only season. Places like Old Town Bagel in downtown Owatonna had been able to make use of the greenspace on Cedar Avenue as well as boulevard dining, but with the cold weather settling in, their options in their smaller location were limiting.
“Our landlord, Dick Hochreiter, has been gracious enough to let us have indoor seating in the building next to us,” said Mark Wilson, owner of the bagel shop that is situated next door to the former Rustique consignment shop. “We are able to get some tables in there and have about 25 people to accommodate the governor’s 50% rule, though I don’t know the exact table count just yet or how we will arrange it.”
Working with the city of Owatonna on a temporary permit, Wilson said they will be able to use 750-square-feet of the empty space as well as fit about two tables in their own location.
“It has definitely been a blessing that the landlord has come around and let us do this and that the city is working with us as well, we are very appreciative to both,” Wilson said. “When we had that first cold snap and again now with it turning into winter, it’s been pretty tough to justify being open and running all the days we normally are. Hopefully this will help and we’ll be able to keep going.”
Brad Meier, president of the Owatonna Chamber of Commerce and Tourism, said moving into the holidays, the community will be thoughtful on where they spend their dollars and consider the local bars and restaurants, knowing they are losing occupancy options as temperatures continue to drop.
“We’re really hopeful that the community will rally around our bars and restaurants. They are the ones who really have felt this as deeply as anyone having been restricted the longest,” Meier said. “We’re really urging people to support in whatever way they can, whether that is eating out, ordering take out, or perhaps from a business standpoint, if you were typically going to do a holiday party with your staff you could consider a gift card to a restaurant as a nice option instead.”
Though the community was energetic during the warm months to get out and enjoy their favorite dining options outside, Meier added the chamber has worked closely with the local hospitality industry and they know all the proper precautions and protocols are in place to keep customers safe.
Wilson said he is also concerned about the other bars and restaurants in town, acknowledging that some of them have had a “tougher go at it” than they have at the bagel shop.
“We wish everyone the best,” Wilson said. “Anything we can do to help support them, we sure will.”
Cronin echoed Wilson’s remarks, adding that he is hoping the same spirit the community had about shopping and eating local in the beginning of the pandemic will carry on throughout the upcoming months.
“This could be a very long, hard winter,” Cronin said. “Survival is the name of the game.”