Hope to-go on for small business

Storefronts look for curbside community support

Owner Miguel Urrutia is taking El Jefe Cocina & Bar into "hibernation" until March. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

After cold weather closed El Jefe Cocina & Bar’s parking lot patio in Tangletown, the restaurant offered complimentary churro donuts and draft beer with family platters. After the governor closed indoor dining, they cut staff down to three people.

“It’s so slow now that, honestly, it’s just not enough to stay open,” said owner Miguel Urrutia. 

El Jefe plans to go into “hibernation” starting Dec. 20 and reopen the first week of March, bringing heaters out to the patio as soon as the weather turns.  

Small business owners reached for this story said they are simply trying to stay afloat until the pandemic is over. Harry Singh said business is the slowest he’s ever seen at his Original Caribbean Restaurant.

“Definitely not making money but just trying to survive it,” said Danny Ziegler, cooking takeout orders to place outside the Our Kitchen doorway. “If there was snow and 20 below, we’d probably be doing a lot worse.”

An October survey of 590 businesses in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan found that smaller employers were more likely to report continued declines in revenue. And the survey, conducted by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank, said businesses owned by people of color, which tend to be smaller employers, have fared worse. Attorney K. Davis Senseman is working with small business owners who see revenue down about 30%-80% across the board this year and suggests that customers help lobby elected officials for relief, buy gift cards, order takeout and show patience with service.

“We just can’t wait for the New Year,” said Amazing Thailand General Manager Yin Muangmode. She’s trying to generate more bartender and server hours by creating a new coffee and bubble tea bar and a Thai Market featuring products made by staff artists alongside the restaurant’s chili oil. “We still have hope.”

C&G’s Smoking Barbecue owner Greg Alford said business is off a little bit, but he’s doing okay.

“Just got to try to stay healthy, that’s all,” he said.

Ruth Bender recently grabbed her favorite doughnut from Bogart’s Doughnut Co., where the treats are displayed in the front window and a card reader is set up outside. 

“I’m getting takeout from places that I love,” she said, adding that she’s shopping local for the holidays. “I feel like I don’t do enough.”

Tangletown Gardens and Wise Acre Eatery created a retail market and year-round Farm Direct program with customizable orders for weekly pickup. Co-owner Scott Endres said that while the pickup is popular, restaurant takeout is a fraction of normal business volume, especially during the winter. 

“Quite frankly I think a lot of restaurants are in a situation where we’re trying to minimize the amount of money we lose every month,” he said. 

Shuttered Southwest Minneapolis businesses include Egg and I, Fuji Ya, Burger Jones, the Apple store, Chino Latino, Fig + Farro (now launching a cookbook and a foundation), Sushi Tango, Penny’s Coffee in Linden Hills and Dogwood Coffee’s Uptown location, as well as Giordano’s, Herkimer, Grand Café (now creating luxury meal kits) and Little Tijuana. Many more venues are closed until further notice, including Saint Sabrina’s and Liquor Lyle’s. 

The challenges

Local Motion Boutique is closing at the end of the year. 

“We’ve been around for so long that people thought, ‘You’ll survive this, you’ll be fine,’” said owner Tonya Bryan. 

But business is down 76%, despite a Paycheck Protection Program loan, a ticketed outdoor art fair, product livestreams, dresses swapped for leggings and comfy tops and after-hours private shopping. “I feel like we’ve done just about everything that we can do. … Go out and shop. Don’t use your gift cards, don’t use your loyalty points right now,” Bryan said, adding that a typical retailer with $10,000 in monthly expenses can’t hold on until the summer for conditions to improve. 

Rather than spend $40,000 to bring in a new spring line, Bryan is planning future pop-ups at one of the many vacant storefronts she expects to become available. Suburban customers are afraid to visit Uptown, she said, and the rise in crime has changed the way she operates, keeping the doors locked and removing merchandise from the store. 

Salon Levante was broken into twice, and owner Dwight Carlson misses the street parking removed during reconstruction. Without destination shops like the Apple Store, he said, foot traffic is down. He normally sells 40 to 50 Halloween wigs; this year, he sold three. 

“But this probably is the most beautiful block in all of Uptown,” he said, referencing the 3000 block of Hennepin’s new decor, lighting and street trees. “I look at the positive side of everything as much as I can.”

“We have good days and bad days,” said Valerie Aguirre, pictured with Javier Cruz at Valerie’s Taqueria.

Fire sprinklers saved the Iron Door Pub building during the civil unrest. Repairs are nearly complete, but owner Dan Fehrenkamp isn’t looking to open anytime soon — he tried takeout for three weeks, but sales were only 10% of normal.

“Restaurants aren’t and shouldn’t be open now given the state of COVID-19,” he said. “We’re an on-site venue. We’re a place for people to hang out, and we can’t hang out right now.”

For the time being, Fehrenkamp said he’s teaching kids at home and repeatedly hitting refresh in a Google search for government stimulus updates. 

Minnesota legislators passed a COVID-19 economic relief bill on Dec. 14 directing grants to businesses that closed due to the governor’s executive order. Hennepin County recently started “Elevate Business HC” with pro bono consultations.

The Twin Cities metro lost about 67,000 lodging and food services jobs — a 47% decline — between the second quarters of 2019 and 2020, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development’s quarterly census. The metro also lost nearly 28,000 jobs in retail trades and nearly 22,000 jobs in the arts, entertainment and recreation.

James Kenna made an offer to open a bar at the former Soap Factory building last spring but shelved that dream when the pandemic hit. Now he’s started a Facebook page for hospitality workers transitioning into real estate, and he’s showing Uptown condos. He loved working in hospitality for 20 years, most recently bartending at JJ’s Clubhouse, but industry management experience doesn’t necessarily translate to a 9-to-5 career, he said. 

“I’m sure a lot of people in hospitality are now struggling,” he said. “I worry about how long it takes to recover from that.”

Maari Cedar James of Chowgirls, which has partnered to create emergency meals through Minnesota Central Kitchen, talked about the challenge of monitoring staff health during a Nov. 5 Minnesota Events Coalition meeting.

“This has created some HR quagmires, because a lot of times what was illegal to talk about with staff in the past is now a requirement, and there’s a lot of gray area,” she said. “We’ve probably revised our COVID-19 case response plan 15, 20 times.” 

At the same Zoom meeting, D’Amico Catering operations director Cathy Bovard talked about the anguish staff have felt after testing positive, requiring their co-workers to miss shifts. She recommended a free contact tracing course available from Johns Hopkins University. 

Businesses that temporarily closed for a few days due to COVID-19 exposure and have since reopened include LynLake Brewery, the Uptown VFW, Butter, Hola Arepa, Bulldog Uptown, Broders’, Patisserie 46 and Red Cow on 50th, among many others. 

Namaste Café recently closed for a few days in mid-December due to a staff member’s exposure to COVID-19 outside the workplace, the first health issue they’ve experienced since the pandemic began. Co-owner Nadine Schaefer said many regulars called while they were closed to show their concern and support. The restaurant could always use more takeout orders, she said. They’re selling chai growlers, taking pre-orders for holiday meals with mulled wine kits and lending patrons reusable containers.

Another new challenge relates to third-party delivery services. 

“A lot of people are scared even to go out right now. … They’re inclined to do delivery instead of ordering and picking up,” said Urrutia of El Jefe, who said slow service and delivery charges up to 30% finally prompted him to axe delivery a couple of months ago. “The reality is you’re not making any money. Delivery companies are taking a huge portion of profits.” 

Business slowed after the patio closed at El Jefe, and the owner said few patrons opted for indoor dining. Photo by Isaiah Rustad

Minneapolitans appear to be staying home at higher rates than others in the region, according to Google mobility reports shared by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve. Retail and recreation mobility in Minneapolis was down 42% as of Dec. 1, compared with a 33% drop statewide and a 26% drop nationally, based on a seven-day rolling average measured against a five-week period at the beginning of this year. Google creates the reports using anonymized datasets from users who have turned on the “location history” setting. Travel to workplaces was down 52% in Minneapolis, compared with the state’s decline of 44% and U.S. decline of 40%. 

The pivots

Businesses continue to innovate with new offerings suited for the times. 

The Jungle Theater’s fall season is virtual, including the full-length production “Is Edward Snowden Single?” Isles Bun & Coffee is offering frozen ready-to-bake buns and puppy dog tails. Wild Mind Artisan Ales added a menu by chef Ian Gray and the Wild Grind coffee bar.

The former Gigi’s Café is converted to Café Wyrd, which is taking weekly pre-orders for coffee beans, brioche and scratch-made soups. Don Raul became the takeout-oriented taqueria El Travieso. Broders’ added Pork & Piccata specializing in pickup and delivery. Red Cow created the “virtual food hall” Chicken Republic. Nightingale added Lake City Sandwiches with focaccia made daily. 

And new venues continue to open: Rosalia Pizza and Fire & Nice Alehouse are making woodfired pizza, Yeah Yeah Taco is sharing Zettas’ kitchen on Eat Street, Petite León offers a takeout-friendly menu, Cafe Ceres is headed to the former Penny’s location, Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ’s tableside cooking is adapted for takeout and Sooki & Mimi is hiring for a new Uptown space. Taproom Direct, a partnership that includes Fair State Brewing and Sociable CiderWerks, will pop up every Monday this winter at Pizza Luce’s Uptown parking lot, providing a pickup site for pre-ordered beer and cider. 

The Driftwood Char Bar launched a fundraiser, opened its kitchen to the family-owned soul food eatery Wholesoul and continues the Shotgun Ragtime Band’s 500-show streak through livestream every Sunday.

“The fundraiser has done real well. The problem is, with this going on for so long, we’ve really used up every reserve,” said booker Larry Sahagian. 

At Polished Nails and Spa, which is making 20% of normal revenue and cautiously serving about eight clients per day, staff are selling at-home spa kits and applying for as many grants as possible, even though a $10,000 grant is quickly consumed by rent and other expenses. 

“I don’t want to complain because my main goal is to keep the business,” said owner Ivy Le. “I’m thankful that it’s still here.”

“If I’m going to spend money, I would much rather spend it at a small business because I know how much they’re suffering,” said Clarice Follero (center), pictured outside Bebe Zito with Maria Aguirre and Marwa Fayez.

The helpers

Customers

— Curbside pickup preferred to third-party delivery

— Gift card purchase; many promotions underway

State of Minnesota

— $88 million in grants to temporarily closed restaurants, gyms and other venues with at least 30% sales decline

— $14 million in grants for movie theaters and convention centers

Hennepin County

— Administering $25 million in new state funding for local business grants; applications expected to open in January

— Elevate Business HC offers free consultations

Business associations

— Lake Street Council, Main Street Alliance, Southwest Business Association, LynLake Business Association, Uptown Association, 50th & France Business Association

Ordering at Misfit Coffee’s to-go window, Katie Danielzuk of St. Paul said she likes to venture out into the neighborhood to visit the small businesses.