It has been almost a year since Wagner’s Lunch and Pool Hall in downtown Owatonna has seen a customer walk through the doors and owner Dan Kubista is missing it.
“I miss the people,” Kubista said after finishing up the lunch rush of curbside orders on Monday. “I love what I do because of the people and having them sit at the counter and chat – you can’t beat that. But right now I just cook.”
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, restaurants in Minnesota have had to completely shut down indoor dining twice, once in March that lasted more than two months before reopening in June and again in November for six weeks. Both times when outdoor and indoor dining were allowed to resume, however, Wagner’s has kept the dining room empty.
“We would spend more time turning people away and cleaning booths than we would making food,” Kubista said, noting that the restaurant is small and would be extremely limited at 50% capacity. “We came up with a plan and we are fortunate it worked, so we want to keep that going instead of switching back and forth.”
Shortly after the first shutdown was announced in March, the Wagner’s team came together to completely shift gears and began offering their iconic burger specials via curbside pickup. Marking three parking spots along the street and using the old fashioned food runner system out to cars, it would appear that Kubista and his staff never missed a beat in 2020.
“We came up with this scheme and we didn’t know how it would go over, but once we got the timing down and I figured out exactly how many burgers and fries I could make at one time it just sort of took off,” Kubista said. “It has been so much better than I expected, especially with the way the times are where nobody can expect what’s going to happen next.”
While business still does not compare to the pre-pandemic days, Kubista is happy that he is financially comfortable and able to continue to support his business and his staff, despite having more staff on than he did before to keep the operation running smoothly. Kubista said he also has no need to apply for any of the small business grants or COVID-19 relief funds, stating he hasn’t lost any money thus far.
Kubista said it is thanks to the community of Owatonna.
“We are very appreciative, it has been a humbling experience with the way the Owatonna community has treated us so well,” Kubista said. “It has been a tough time, but it has been good enough for us to keep me comfortable and as long as I’m comfortable, I am going to ask that we support other businesses in town. I love Owatonna and I want to keep everyone here.”
Kubista is a staunch supporter of all businesses in Owatonna, specifically in the downtown district where his own business is located. He said supporting all business and keeping them all thriving is good not only for the community, but for all the other businesses as well as they maneuver through the pandemic.
“The worst thing that can happen to a community and downtown is empty store fronts,” Kubista said. “That is why we need to support everyone. In times like this, a community has to take care of itself and that’s what they’re doing, they’re there for everybody.”
Kubista said he will not open his indoor dining until they can safely be at 100% capacity, adding that it is for the safety of his staff and his customers.
“The hardest part of this whole thing is how much I love the Owatonna community and the people,” Kubista said, reiterating how much he misses his customers joining him on their lunch break. “It has been a rollercoaster, but we are riding the storm and I just hope everyone can get through it together.”