After a year of offering food in takeout boxes, Wadena restaurant owners say the “dramatic impact” of the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t stopped since last spring's statewide closures, though opportunities for outdoor seating and the return of limited indoor dining have helped.

Wadena Development Authority Director Dean Uselman said that while business remains slow, restaurant owners and staff have been pushing through, getting creative in their service options and rolling up their sleeves to rearrange tables, sanitize between customers and fulfill phone and online orders.

Restaurants have been lacking their usual ambiance, with typically crowded dining rooms instead sitting relatively quiet, other than the phone ringing or the swish of the door as customers enter for a brief moment to pick up their to-go orders. Things took a baby step back to normal in January, when restaurants were able to operate at 50% capacity and small groups could gather at tables again.

At El Mariachi, to counter the loss of liquor sales and slower-than-usual food sales, the restaurant added a Taco Tuesday promotion. Owner Yeri Gonzalez said this helped boost their sales on what tends to be a slower day of the week, and allowed them to keep their full menu. Customers started ordering 30 tacos at once, both keeping things busy and adding to the need for large takeout containers (with restaurants across the country needing more containers, the boxes weren’t always available and could take weeks to arrive).

“We just didn’t know how much to order, or how much food to make that day,” Gonzalez said.

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The Uptown expanded its daily specials and happy hour prices to the takeout menu, and also added family-style meals as takeout options. Co-owner Nick Kupfer said people have enjoyed these changes, though the staff misses seeing customers at the tables. While the loss in revenue wasn’t huge for The Uptown, not all staff members were able to stay on, Kupfer said. The restaurant's staff of eight had to be reduced to five.

As of February, the state's hospitality industry has seen a loss of 116,000 jobs, as Hospitality Minnesota President and CEO Liz Rammer said.

In Wadena County, 2,501 unemployment insurance applications had been filed since March 16, 2020, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Of those applications, 161 are in the food and beverage service workers category, along with 106 in the cooks and food preparation workers category. The applications are counted cumulatively based on how many weeks a person receives unemployment insurance.

The impact on employment is part of the larger community impact, as people lack the resources to purchase goods at businesses, Uselman noted. Business owners might not have the resources to make their usual donations to schools or community organizations.

“It really does affect everybody in a community,” Uselman said.

Still, Wadena community members have continued to rally for the restaurants, as Kupfer and Owly Coffee Company owner Kyle Hagen said. People see the need and “there’s a lot of people buying just to keep people afloat,” Drastic Measures Taproom Manager Ashley Doebbeling said.

Restaurant owners push through by promoting each other, too, like passing along their favorites place to eat or try a treat.

“We’re just kind of seeing what we can do to keep it here, local, with each other so everybody stays busy,” Hagen said.

Along with community support, the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Wadena County and city grants have kept restaurants open, too. In Wadena, restaurants received $410,900 in PPP loans and $493,700 in EIDLs. For many of the programs, at least a 30% loss is required.

“Without a doubt in my mind, if it weren’t for some of the grant funding that has been available to our hospitality industry, many of our local restaurants, I believe, would be closed today,” Uselman said.

With people not traveling for business or vacation, those who would normally stay at hotels aren’t stopping by restaurants—even when the weather is nice. In September, Doebbeling estimated summer traffic was down by 40-50%. And attempts at outdoor dining included wind and rain at El Mariachi.

“In addition to the local people that would patronize the restaurants, you’re not having the people that are traveling, or typically would be traveling. They’re just not there, and so consequently the numbers in the restaurants are significantly down across the board,” Uselman said. People also might not have extra money to spend or are concerned about the spread of the coronavirus.

The pace is slower. Services like ordering through Facebook Messenger and quickly picking up the food inside have been popular at Owly, along with the drive-thru. Instead of relaxing in the coffee shop, the whiffs of coffee became travel partners for people.

“You improvise,” Hagen said. “You slow down a little bit but you just learn to adapt and make it work.”

Hagen hopes to continue adapting well, including cutting costs where needed without cutting employees. The employees at the coffee shop have been able to remain on, and even receive pay increases.

“We haven’t had to worry about cutting any kind of costs or cutting any employees, so that’s been really nice,” Hagen said.

Delivery services have boosted some businesses, Uselman said, such as pizza places that already had delivery cars and designated staff members. Customers have appreciated home delivery and curbside service at Larry’s Family Pizza with the offerings taking off in March 2020, as owner Lisa Leeseberg said. While offering delivery, Gonzalez said the pressure was for her to always be available at the restaurant to take addresses and orders.

Throughout each day, COVID-19 cleaning and sanitizing requires extra resources and time, as well as managing the customers in the restaurant. Groups sometimes get upset when they have to wear masks or can't all sit together because of social distancing rules, while other customers get upset when rules aren't followed.

“It’s really unfortunate, because as the business owners we can’t control what people do, and I don’t think anyone’s in a position where they can turn people away because they’re not following the rules, because again the clientele has decreased so much,” Doebbeling said.

While restaurants and customers aren’t at their full capacity yet, continuing mitigation practices and vaccinations will positively impact restaurants and businesses, Uselman said.

“I do anticipate that we’ve kind of turned the corner on (restaurants permanently closing). With what we’ve learned about COVID and how to avoid the spread of COVID, and along with the support of vaccinations, I do think that we’re going to see businesses allowed to remain open and actually be able to increase their seating to a higher percentage of their normal capacity, and eventually I would hope they would be back to 100% seating capacity,” Uselman said.

The challenges of the closures aren’t over, Kupfer said, but “we’ll keep making it through."