It was a long two-and-a-half months for restaurants and bars that could resort only to curbside pickup and delivery for revenue during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the state of Minnesota first loosened up the reigns on restrictions, allowing restaurants to open up their patios at 25% on June 1, the sigh of relief was audible.
“We were not a little worried – we were a lot worried,” said Jose Herrara, the owner of Plaza Morena Campestre Grill in Owatonna. “We were very worried because we couldn’t survive for too long. We’ve been losing money this whole time, but we are fighting to survive.”
Herrara’s delighted that it was able to serve customers on the split patio at Plaza last week. It gives him hope that the eatery will make it to the other side of COVID-19, though spacing requirements are challenging and limit the restaurant to roughly 20 diners at a time.
“If people aren’t in an out in a half hour, that provides an obstacle, too,” Herrara said, adding that table turnover has never been more important in the restaurant industry. “We also have had to hire on a lot more people because we still have takeout orders, so our payroll is going up and we’re still losing money.”
Last week, Herrara said that even if he could open the inside of the restaurant at just 25% that it would make the world of difference, allowing him to seat an additional 50 people. On Friday, Gov. Tim Walz announced that restaurants and bars would be allowed to open their indoor dining at 50% capacity Wednesday, giving Herrara additional reason to hope.
Tonya Dunn, the general manager at Depot Bar and Grill in Faribault, was shocked that the indoor dining was opening so early, adding that she expected it to still take a month or more for that to happen.
“It really gave us hope,” Dunn said. “We have been putting in a lot of work to get ready, but now that we know we can open on Wednesday it was all definitely worth it.”
When patios were first allowed to open, Dunn said they instantly erected a tent in the south end of the parking lot to allow for even more tables. She said it worked, keeping the restaurant busy with excited customers every day.
“I think people were just really excited to get out again, so it’s been really good,” Dunn said. “I’ve been feeling very fortunate and that we lucked out because we definitely have the largest and best patio in town, we were really lucky in that way.”
Though the indoor dining is being largely viewed as a promising step towards survival for most restaurants that have made it this far, Dunn said she is still concerned about when the state will allow those in the hospitality business to operate at full capacity again.
“As long as we can open at 100% indoors come fall we will be OK,” Dunn said. “We are very fortunate to have the patio, because if we didn’t have that space we would not survive. So I’m hoping that by fall we’ll be able to open at 100%, otherwise a lot of people in the business will not make it.”
While Herrera also hopes for a full opening sooner rather than later, he said right now he and his staff are focused on making sure that their customers are leaving satisfied – no matter where they sit.
“I just want to make sure people are happy,” Herrara said. “We have had great and strong support from people in our community, and because of them we will keep fighting to make it work.”