When the spread of COVID-19 led to a statewide order shutting down dine-in service in restaurants, The Lowbrow in Kingfield added a second phone line.
The longtime neighborhood joint quickly decided not to take orders online to keep some level of control on the workload in the kitchen and ensure all the food people bought was hot and fresh, but staff quickly learned one phone line wasn’t enough to take in all the calls. Even now, owner Heather Bray said, they continue to get emails telling them calls aren’t going through.
“We’re totally like a radio show,” Bray said.
Across Southwest Minneapolis, restaurants have been forced to change their business models overnight due to the coronavirus pandemic. As the restaurant closure enters its second month — and with dim chances of full dining rooms even once restrictions are lifted — local spots are adjusting their menus and styles to the new normal and trying to find ways to survive and serve good meals.
At 21st & Penn, The Kenwood Restaurant is now open seven days a week for lunch and dinner. The neighborhood cafe used to close on Mondays, but with the shift to takeout, owner Don Saunders decided to serve food all week. When Gov. Tim Walz announced restaurants would need to close March 16, Saunders and head chef Joel DeBilzan started to craft a takeout menu. The first weekend “was insane” with tons of orders coming in, Saunders said, which resulted in him keeping on more staff than he initially anticipated.
For some restaurateurs, combining operations has streamlined the takeout business. Chef Steven Brown has consolidated Lynnhurt’s St. Genevieve and Tilia at 43rd & Upton into one takeout cafe running out of the Linden Hills kitchen. The restaurants began serving takeout options right away, according to Tilia general manager Corinne Dickey.
The Lowbrow has been trying to advise customers to place their orders early in the day, so staff can stay on top of everything and ensure quality food.
“The first week or so we hit some hiccups in terms of creating new systems,” Bray said.
Skipping the salad
As operations have shifted to takeout, restaurants are tweaking their menus and seeing big sales in rich comfort food.
“We have a big regular customer base from the neighborhood, so we wanted a menu diverse enough to keep people coming back,” Saunders said.
For The Kenwood, that meant having chef DeBilzan use his background in high-end Italian dining and introduce more pasta dishes. It has kept a full kid’s menu and, at the request of a regular, has started to sell its granola in pints and quarts. The restaurant is also serving more braised meats, which reheat well, rather than steaks, which has led to new items like Moroccan lamb with couscous.
“We made sure we’re doing things where if people reheat something an hour later, it’s just as good,” Saunders said.
Restaurants have been able to let their healthier options fall by the wayside. When people order out, they want something decadent.
“People are not ordering salads; it is burgers, burgers and fries,” Bray said. “We sold more french fries [on April 17] than we have sold at any shift ever at The Lowbrow since we opened.”
The Lowbrow’s pastry chef, Amy Kovacks, has been busy, too. Overall dessert sales have doubled even while sales in general are about 50% of normal.
Sister eateries Tilia and St. Genevieve are selling staple dishes from both menus, with items like the cheeseburger and the fish taco torta in high demand. The chefs have also been preparing a variety of takeout family meals that sell out regularly, Dickey said.
“We’ve found rotating it daily works the best,” she said.
Beer and wine
On April 16, Walz signed off on a new law allowing restaurants to sell beer and wine for takeout, which local spots have said has been a boon to profits so far.
“It’s been more of a hit than I expected,” Bray said.
Based on the number of sales, she thinks The Lowbrow has found a sweet spot with pricing that would be a great deal in a restaurant, even if it’s not as affordable as buying directly from a liquor store. She believes people like the convenience.
The Lowbrow is one of several community restaurants that began selling cocktails when the city ordinance changed in 2019, and while Bray said the profit margin would be better with spirits, she gets why the Legislature didn’t end up signing off on liquor sales.
Wine sales have helped with cash flow at The Kenwood, Saunders said. The first weekend with wine sales saw about a 15% increase in profit, he said. The Kenwood has been offering good deals on its wine list, and he believes customers are seeing the value in it.
“I just think it’s, temporarily at least, a way we can generate some more revenue that will help us recoup lost revenue from not being open,” Saunders said.
Even though his restaurant only sells beer and wine, Saunders had advocated for cocktail sales to the governor’s office and the Legislature.
“I don’t see any reason why they didn’t,” he said.
Relying on community
Restaurants credit their base of regulars and neighbors with keeping them afloat during the crisis, with many reporting generous tipping and frequent ordering.
Customers of The Lowbrow organized a GoFundMe page for the restaurant’s staff that’s raised more than $10,000. Bray said her kitchen staff is working full time and front-of-house staff have had hours cut in half. The Lowbrow has boosted pay by $4 per hour during the crisis and all staff are splitting tips, which have been consistently high.
“The level of outpouring of support from our customers is really moving,” Bray said.
The Kenwood has about half of its typical 25 employees working right now. “I’m really grateful that we’re at least able to generate some revenue to keep some people employed and keep the doors open,” Saunders said.
He is glad the restaurant has been opened for eight years and has a consistent base of support in the neighborhood.
Tilia and St. Genevie have stayed busy with regulars from both restaurants calling in orders consistently and staff from both cafes working in close coordination.
“My biggest takeaway so far is how cool it’s been to see the restaurant community coming together to help each other through this weird, different time,” Dickey said.
While it’s hard to predict, some are contemplating what reopening could look like. Currently, Minnesota’s stay-at-home order is scheduled to expire May 18, though that may be prolonged. Even when restaurants are allowed to reopen, it’s unlikely full capacity will be allowed immediately, and even if it is, individual restaurants may not want to open their dining rooms to everyone.
“I think it comes in stages,” Saunders said.
There’s what’s allowed and what the public will want to do, he said. The Kenwood and others will have to consider if it’s worth opening their dining rooms at half capacity or if continuing with takeout only is the better business option. Many expect more direction from the governor’s office in the coming days, even if they don’t know what that will be.
“Everything is surprising everyday so I wouldn’t be surprised if this goes for 18 months,” Bray said.