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Why would anyone open a restaurant right now?

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I. The Omen

Even in a “normal” year, the days just before a restaurant opens are among the most stressful.

For Eric Foster, that was early and mid-March. He was readying to open East Side Bar, the reincarnation of the much-loved Ward 6 in St. Paul. After about a year of planning, they’d finally gotten around to mock service and staff training. Friends and family members were coming to eat.

It was stressful and hectic in all the usual ways, and in some 2020-specific ones. As Foster handled the inevitable small- and medium-sized fires leading up to day one, there was also the understanding that something terrible was on the horizon. COVID cases were spreading and creeping closer to Minnesota. Guests who planned on coming in had been canceling reservations out of fear for their health. ESB made some relatively simple modifications to try to ensure safety, and hoped for the best.

Then they opened to the public—on the precise day Governor Walz shut down restaurants.

“I don’t think I’m alone—I think this is where we all were mentally—it seemed like this was something that was going to happen, and it was going to shut everything down for a week or two, and then things would go back to normal,” Foster says now. “In retrospect it’s like... how did we even twist ourselves into believing that was possible?”

A valid question! And yet, ESB is one of dozens of restaurants and takeout spots and delivery joints and “ghost kitchens” and pop-ups that have debuted since COVID shut down Minnesota bars and restaurants in March, and more are being announced all the time. Rosalia Pizza. Nashville Coop. Taste of Rondo. Billy Sushi. Petite León. The list goes on.

It begs the question... why?

COVID cases are surging and temperatures are dropping to the kind of patio-season-ending cold even industrial heaters and lined leggings can’t make pleasant. Government aid is gone, and there’s an infinitesimal chance of another stimulus package for restaurants going through. Americans are still out of work and reticent to risk eating out—for reasons fiscal and viral. There is, in the background of everything, the chance that another shutdown is coming. Why would any person decide to open a restaurant right now?

II. No, Seriously

We started by asking Brian Ingram this very question. Because that guy’s opened not one but two since COVID hit.

Ingram revived the Happy Gnome in St. Paul after it closed last year. Reborn as “the Gnome,” it’s been up and running in Cathedral Hill since early August. Meanwhile, at Keg and Case Market, he and Justin Sutherland (the chef behind Handsome Hog, which also made a move from Lowertown to bigger Cathedral Hill digs during COVID) opened Woodfired Cantina in the anchor restaurant space that previously hosted In Bloom.

“I have the smallest IQ of everybody, I think is what it is,” Ingram laughs.

Maybe, but if so, he’s in good company. Take the new Northeast tortilleria Nixta, which wouldn’t exist if the pandemic didn’t.

“COVID hit, and we were out of work, so we started making dinners for friends,” chef Gustavo Romero and the folks behind “Team Tortilla” tell CP by email. “A familiar kitchen came up for rent, so we saw an opportunity to do what we were doing, on a larger scale, and with the help of friends and family, jumped on it.” Nixta opened in June.

Their concept is a little bit different; Nixta trades in pre-order pickup dinners and sells tortillas. But they say demand has steadily increased—even during COVID. “We’re mindful of the times: There is a need for economical and accessible meals, and that’s our model.”

In south Minneapolis, Coastal Seafoods also saw a pandemic business boom. Marketing director Keane Amdahl says they had a feeling a lockdown was coming, and to prepare, switched to a curbside ordering model before the official stay-at-home order started. At the same time, the tiny, decades-old seafood shop was about to move into a much bigger footprint not far from their existing Seward location, where they’d have a market and a cafe and a school (not a fish joke) where folks could take classes on oceanic eats.

“It’s funny, but going curbside really showed us how many more people we were able to help,” Amdahl says. They no longer needed to work within the physical space constraints of the store, which “actually helped us to grow our business during COVID and highlighted the need for [a] new, bigger location.”

They planned to open the expanded space in August well before COVID hit, and the pandemic made it clear they had to push forward “to better and more safely accommodate our customers.”

At Nixta and at Coastal, there’s been some need to adapt—though not by much.

Kate and Gustavo Romero of Nixta

Kate and Gustavo Romero of Nixta Travis Anderson

“Our model was born in COVID, so those constraints were a known variable,” Team Tortilla says. There are small acquiescences: Despite an impulse to want to make “everything,” they realize a heat-and-eat system works best for their meals. (Fish tacos and tlayudas, while delicious, just don’t make it far by car.) The creative balance is in making uncompromising food that also doesn’t force the customer to do too much on their end.

The Coastal crew “had to rethink the cafe, as we couldn’t reasonably accommodate indoor dining,” which meant structuring the menu toward items that were easy to prepare for takeout but still highlighted their original idea: tying everything back to the store. Amdahl says they’re set up in such a way that—in an eventual future in which COVID doesn’t impact everything about daily life—they can expand and switch up their menu.

Ingram, too, seems unnervingly calm about all of this—though one thing he has going for him is timing. He’d started pursuing the Happy Gnome almost as soon as he heard it closed last year, but when COVID hit in earnest he hadn’t yet signed a lease on the space.

“I think the one thing COVID did was it pushed landlords,” he says. “The only reason I’ve done two restaurants is landlords now have to work with small, independent guys like me.”

Smaller restaurateurs typically don’t have the resources to personally guarantee giant spaces (like, say, the Gnome’s two-story, 130-year-old firehouse complete with big-ass parking lot). “We don’t have, frankly, the credit history that all these large corporations have.”

Two things have changed financially since the pandemic: Banks aren’t as insistent on having a personal guarantee, and landlords are willing to negotiate percentage-based leases. Per Ingram: “I think most of us are negotiating percentage-rent-only deals now. So if the government shut us down and we weren’t able to open at 25 percent occupancy or 50 percent occupancy, if you’re percentage-rent only, then your rent will fluctuate with that.”

That doesn’t mean you can skate on by for eternity without putting down a penny, but you can get a more favorable deal, and without losing everything you worked your whole life for. “Because most of the time when you do personal guarantees as a small restaurateur, you’re putting your house up, you’re putting your kids’ college education up. You’re going all in.”

It takes a long time to get a restaurant going, and for many, opening during COVID wasn’t a choice, but a necessity. “It shouldn’t, in most cases, be seen as an act of opportunity—no matter how creative the service model!—but rather survival,” Team Tortilla told us. “Sure, banks and landlords are giving crazy deals (we got none of those, sadly), but isn’t that exactly because it is supremely difficult to work and succeed in this environment?”

Ingram says the same. Yes, he’s getting approached by banks offering wild downtown discounts (“three years rent-free!”) after owners have foreclosed on buildings. They don’t want an empty property just sitting there with no power or gas or heat running and pipes breaking as they go into winter. They simply want a body in the building.

“It’s something you would dream of getting—you would never, ever get that,” Ingram says. “But there’s nobody going out to eat. Still, you would lose money, and your staff would lose money, so there’s no point in doing it.”

“It’s really scary when you get those calls and people are willing to do that,” he continues. “Those actually don’t build confidence. They make me super scared. Then I really do think I’m the stupid one.”

III. It Ain’t Good Out There

Folks who own restaurants aren’t usually keen to open their books for outsiders—even (or perhaps especially) for nosy CP writers. Whether due to propriety or privacy or pride or a general sense that it’s, uh, not your business, buddy, the tendency is to keep that stuff to yourself.

But Tristan Jimerson has never really ascribed to that financial obfuscation—and hey, he doesn’t own a restaurant anymore anyway, after making the call to close Taco Cat in September on account of COVID safety and other pandemic-adjacent considerations.

Jimerson says they started their bike-delivery taco business with $10,000, and tried never to get too far in debt after that. Still, each winter, as Minneapolis residents hunkered down, they’d wind up “about $60,000 in the hole.” It’s money they can usually make back in the summer with their food truck and their State Fair stall—neither of which were up and running this year on account of COVID. Sure, they could take out a loan to get through the winter... but that’s assuming things will be “normal” come March or April.

“We look at the writing on the wall and see what’s being handled at the state and federal level, and go: We’re not getting any bailouts. That’s never happening for restaurants,” Jimerson says. “We’re not getting any help from the fucking federal government. And the way that the public has reacted to wearing masks and social distancing—it’s not going to work for us. And I don’t think it’s going to work for a lot of places.”

Coastal Seafoods

Coastal Seafoods Coastal Seafoods

Again, this is a bike-delivery taco service whose only physical footprint was inside Midtown Global Market. No big dining room, relatively small staff, fairly minimal overhead—about as streamlined an operation as you could have.

“I think there will be a great boom in the restaurant industry, and there’s going to be a lot of really wonderful things,” Jimerson says. “But [first] I think what it’s going to be is an ice age-level extinction.”

Not everyone got to take advantage of smokin’ real estate deals—before or after the pandemic—but it seems especially tough for folks who had a lease before it hit. Particularly those who signed one just before it hit.

Joshua and Nell Currey Dykhuis, the couple behind the newly opened Birdhouse in Robbinsdale, inked their deal last Halloween. Demolition on the space started in late January, and they opened on August 3.

“By the time restaurants were completely shut down, we were already financially invested—lease signed, loan money disbursed,” Josh says. “Giving up just wasn’t an option. We put our heads down and worked.”

“We are finding it almost impossible to get much financial help right now,” adds Nell. They had to start paying rent in February, even though their opening was pushed back a few months. Like many other new restaurants, they don’t qualify for grant funding—through the county or SBA—because to do so, they need to show sales prior to January 15 of this year. And being at 50 percent capacity without the bar crowds they anticipated has made sales goals hard to reach.

As for how it’s going for Eric Foster and the crew over at ESB since their opening and immediate closing?

“In a word, terrible. Really fucking terrible,” Foster says. He guesses they’re doing 20 to 30 percent of the business he’d expect in a typical year. And though they’ve tried lots of things with varying degrees of success—food-for-four family dinners, to-go cocktail kits, special events—it’s only been marginally helpful.

Which again, brings us back to the question of why a person would go through with this now, knowing what we do about the pandemic and the extreme lack of an end in sight.

It’s a question Union Hmong Kitchen’s Yia Vang has been asking himself. Vang is currently working to open Vinai in Northeast—a celebration of Hmong cooking and the family recipes he grew up eating.

“For me, it gave me this gut check of: Why do you want to do this?” Vang says. “In the midst of COVID, a smart person would not be doing this, you know? Is this like, an ego thing? I really had to check my why.”

What he came back to was: family. Specifically, his parents.

“What motivates me is their journey from a war-torn country, my dad fighting in that war, my parents getting us here. What drove me is that idea of: They’ve been through so much,” Vang says. Family is at the core of everything he’s doing at Vinai—it was before the pandemic hit and it is now. “What am I willing to go through? What am I willing to stress about to make sure that people hear that story?”

Josh says they have a few good reasons not to give up, but at the end of the day? “I couldn’t disappoint our family.” One of their toddlers’ first words was “Birdhouse,” and their oldest works there four nights a week. (And “We can’t forget Nana, the plant stylist.”)

“Nell and I worked together last Friday night and were the last to leave,” Josh says. “We sat in the empty restaurant and had a drink, and it was one of the happiest moments of my life.”

But Nell adds: “After this first full cold week without patio seats, we are seeing how challenging this winter will be. This is nothing like the business plan the Birdhouse was created with.”

“You have to adapt or die,” says Jimerson. And, as was the case at Taco Cat, “Sometimes you adapt and die. It’s not a pleasant experience.”

IV. Survival of the Scrappiest

If Jimerson is right —if this is an extinction-level event for restaurants—that doesn’t mean the industry as a whole goes away. What we’re left with may be little lizards and small mammals: those tough, quick, or clever enough to make it through and thrive in the new world.

Yeah Yeah Taco was born from this kind of on-the-fly adaptation. The crew behind the “somewhat original” Eat Street flatbread shop Zettas spent about a year planning to open a new cocktail bar in Northeast. But days before signing with their contractor to get the thing rolling for real, COVID hit the state, and they hit the brakes.

Not knowing whether this was going to last a month or a year or five years, Sophia Munch says they decided to terminate their lease. But since they already had the Zettas space, and were comfortable working in a teeny-tiny kitchen, they figured: Why not just do the bar menu that they’d spent so much time and love and energy working on here? Yeah Yeah Taco started as a weekend-only pop-up, but it was such a hit—and so much fun to do—that it eventually became a daily thing.

“I kind of get the sense that for people right now, entertainment options are extremely limited. And I think even before COVID, food was becoming entertainment,” Munch says. Sure, the experience of sitting down and sharing a meal and a bunch of wine with your people might be unavailable to you at the moment, “but people are very excited for new options right now, because it’s a new activity, you know? We were like, ‘Cool, let’s give them something new to do.’”

This “ghost kitchen” concept—a restaurant within a restaurant—isn’t new. Nor are takeout-only eateries or delivery-only eateries, for that matter; Indianapolis-based “ClusterTruck” had a six-month stint in Minneapolis back in 2018, and Famous Dave’s has been pioneering dining-room-free “virtual restaurants” for years.

Historically speaking, they haven’t been super successful. ClusterTruck couldn’t make it work in Minneapolis or Denver or Cleveland (though six other U.S. locations remain, according to their website). Celeb chef David Chang of Momofuku fame opened and then closed NYC’s app-and-web-only Ando, and the list of failed Silicon Valley-backed delivery-only eateries includes Maple, Sprig, Bento, and SpoonRocket.

Chef Jorge Guzmán at Petite León

Chef Jorge Guzmán at Petite León Eliesa Johnson

But maybe they were ahead of their time? Ghost kitchens have caught on quickly in 2020 as sit-down service dwindles and chefs see an opportunity to get creative with takeout. Lake City Sandwiches is up and running out of the Nightingale kitchen on Lyndale; St. Paul’s French Hen Cafe now moonlights as Moonflower Pizza. In Uptown, lines extend down the block for folks waiting to try new chicken tender hotspot CHX, a to-go window that operates out of the Pourhouse.

“The idea was, hey, let’s use underutilized kitchen space in ZIP codes with high delivery volume, or takeout,” says Frederick Huballa, one of CHX’s three founding members. “Let’s get brands in there that believe they should be in that area to get people fresh food in a quick time.”

They started kicking around the idea about four years ago, but got working on it in earnest as COVID hit. For Huballa and partners Marques Johnson and Shawn Edward, the idea is that takeout and delivery can be made fresh, and with the same high-quality, local ingredients as you’d get in a sit-down situation. “That’s something we feel like is more rare in the fast-casual space,” he says. “If it’s not fine dining, it shouldn’t lose the ‘fine.’”

Odds are good we’ll see more takeout menus emphasizing “fine” the longer the pandemic stretches on. Petite León—the south Minneapolis restaurant from chef-owner Jorge Guzmán (formerly of Surly Brewer’s Table) and co-owner Travis Serbus—was initially envisioned as a sexy, sit-down neighborhood spot. COVID changed “everything.”

“All of it. All of the above,” Guzmán says. “From the website to the layout to the menu to the inventory to our hiring practices.”

“We’ve pivoted and changed our concept already,” adds Serbus. “Jorge’s done, what, 15 menus?”

Instead, they’ll open this weekend with a to-go only menu that includes roasted beets with pilpelchuma, labna, macadamia, and quinoa; lamb meatballs with salsa birria, crema, toasted ajonjoli, and mint; and red chile pozole with heirloom Mexican hominy, chicken confit, and “fixin’s.”

Traditional takeout it ain’t, but they’re working within the constraints of the time. And they’ll have a ghost kitchen here, too: Guzmán’s pop-up concept Pollo Pollo al Carbon will be up and running soon, serving family-style meals of the adobo-rubbed bird, housemade salsas and rubs, and tortillas from Nixta.

Like everything else, it involves constant shifting, reassessing, and pivoting. It means taking a clear-eyed, near-daily look at what’s working and what isn’t.

As Munch at Yeah Yeah Taco says: This is a master puzzle. “We’re all trying to be like, ‘Okay, cool. What’s our piece? Where do we fit in? What can we do? What can we stretch?’ It’s a really beautiful time to be in this industry, where all the normalcy—all the guaranteed ideals of the industry—are gone. I think it shows how creative everybody can really be.”

Her answer for why anyone would do this right now, for the record: “People in the industry are like, insane people,” she laughs. “You’ve gotta be a little crazy to do this. And I think this pandemic situation only shows that to like, the highest degree.”

V. Better Together

Dare we allow ourselves another flicker of optimism, this could be an opportunity to change more than the manner in which guests order and eat. It could be a chance to look beyond menu pivots and pop-ups that extends to industry-wide betterment.

One newish shift? A belief that in collaboration, rather than competition is the way to keep the lights on. Yia Vang says Union Hmong Kitchen has benefitted from that spirit of do-it-togetherness—the restaurant was operating out of a trailer at Sociable Cider Werks, and for the winter months, Vang and his Hmong Kitchen menu are moving into Matty O’Reilly’s Republic. (Sammy’s Avenue Eatery will step into the Sociable trailer.)

“That’s a person who’s putting their money where their mouth is, not just saying, ‘Hey, I hope we can all work together, I hope we can get through this.’ It was him saying, ‘I want us to get through this. I want you to get through this. How do we come together?’”

Lauren Cutshall

Lauren Cutshall

“My hope is that all of these inequities that we’ve been talking about in the restaurant industry for so long and said, ‘Oh we don’t have the time to change it, we don’t have the money to change it’—I’m hoping this at least changes that,” says Jimerson at Taco Cat. He wants to see more employee-owned restaurants, more cooperative restaurants, more small-scale, one-person, “not-in-a-restaurant restaurants.” More things like CHX (and Taco Cat), where someone can open something without saddling themselves with an enormous lease and a ton of debt.

And what about those who don’t own restaurants, but work in them? Jimerson continues: “People see their employees as people that should be grateful because they’re getting paid. That relationship has changed. And is going to continue to change.” (Look at the unionization efforts that rippled through the Twin Cities food and drink industry this summer.)

His prediction is already coming to fruition. At Petite León, there’s an outward goal of creating a good culture. “We’ve been employees, and we’ve been in situations where it’s stressful and it’s daunting and it’s toxic,” Guzmán says. “Part of our process was, we want to have a place where when you come to work, you feel secure and feel safe.”

They want to give employees insurance; they plan to implement a 20 percent service charge and eliminate tipping.The hope is to start everyone at $15 an hour, eventually getting them to $20.

“I would add that we want our employees to be part of the decision-making process and to have a sense of ownership,” adds León’s Travis Serbus. “This is an experiment, it’s a total work in progress. But we really want to put our employees first.”

And if you’d rather not have a boss? If you decide you are one of the wild ones who wants to become part of this industry’s ongoing puzzle/tapestry/nightmare/community?

“It’s probably going to be one of the best times for a cook to go out and start his own restaurant,” says Serbus, echoing Brian Ingram’s now-or-never take. “Equipment’s gonna be cheap, and property’s gonna be cheap. Landlords are starting to be more reasonable.

“It actually could end up being a very good opportunity for the industry, once we get over this,” he continues. “And once we do, I suspect it’s gonna be like the Roaring Twenties. People are gonna be out. They’re gonna be hungry. The industry will come roaring back.”