Those of us with already-dwindling prepper pantries breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday after learning that Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home order would continue allowing takeout and delivery.
The announcement also came as a comfort for restaurant owners, lots of whom have successfully made the to-go model part of their pandemic survival plan over the last few weeks. (We have a list of 13 personal favorites right here.)
But more and more places—even those that started offering takeout or delivery after Walz’s first executive order shut down restaurants—are abandoning the model, hoping instead to resume full service after the COVID-19 outbreak reaches some sort of resolution. Kramarczuk’s, Grand Catch, 4Bells, Reverie, Hola Arepa, Jax Cafe—all are among those that considered trying takeout or gave it a go, then decided to shut down for the foreseeable future.
“We know that the virus is in our community, so we decided that the best decision was to be safe and take a wait-and-see approach,” says Reverie co-owner Kirstin Wiegmann, whose south Minneapolis vegan eatery made the tough call to close on March 15. They’d been offering curbside pickup prior, but as they continually heard experts saying we had to isolate, flatten the curve, and protect the vulnerable, they didn’t feel responsible encouraging customers or staff to congregate.
Bill Kozlak, the third-generation owner of Northeast’s Jax Cafe, puts it simply: “If we’re going to beat this thing, we really don’t need several workers in a small space making food.” After a week of serving takeout crab cakes and jumbo shrimp cocktail, Jax shut down “until further notice” on March 22.
It’s a difficult choice—and a commendable one—as it can take up to two weeks for patients with COVID-19 to start showing symptoms. (Though you should also know experts say it’s safe to order takeout right now.)
But it’s not just the health component keeping restaurants out of the curbside fray. Meritage chef-owner Russell Klein says they considered doing takeout and delivery—he even wrote a more portable version of their menu. In the end, it came down to financial viability. It just didn’t seem like takeout would generate enough revenue to compensate staff for those hours, let alone vendors, who sooner or later would expect to be paid. If they closed down entirely, at least the restaurant wouldn’t rack up any more debts in the interim.
“One of the things about going through the failure of Zentral is that we learned that sometimes it's better to cut it off than continue to bleed,” Klein says. “Part of our responsibility as owners is to look ahead and have some confidence that two weeks from now we will be able to pay our employees.”
Klein thinks Meritage would have been busy, at least at the outset. There’s novelty in getting to-go containers of fine French food—just look at the Michelin-starred restaurants that have been tapping into takeout.
But he doubts it would have lasted forever—if much more than a week.
Plenty of Twin Cities dining rooms have pivoted to pickup with great results, but the to-go model ain’t easy. Kozlak notes that it’s tricky to order accurately when you’re not used to it, and you have to brace for the fact that the government could order a shutdown with roughly 24 hours warning. Before 2 p.m. Wednesday, there was no way of knowing if Walz's latest order was even going to allow takeout. It's an impossible time to plan ahead.
“The first notice was really financially painful, as we had so much product purchased for St. Patrick's Day specials and then couldn’t be open,” Kozlak says.
At Jax, he says they really did the takeout thing to reduce inventory. It moved some food, and it made some regulars happy. But he calls the curbside pickup business a “lemonade stand war,” with lots of neighborhood restaurants offering it in a pretty small area.
“Unless you previously did a lot, it isn’t going to pan out, or you may not be set up well to do it,” he says. “You have to do a small menu that you can put out quick and that will travel well to your standards.”
Klein, too, says he’ll be surprised if the takeout model remains viable. “I just doubt that it can drive enough revenue for most restaurants to pay people and purchase more food,” he says. And at some point, it’ll start to strain customers, since ordering food every night—even once or twice a week—adds up. The stay-at-home order is likely to drag on; unemployment will likely keep rising. “I wonder how long people will be willing to spend during this shutdown.”
The obvious flipside here is that you can’t make money if you’re closed either. Hola Arepa and Hai Hai co-owner Christina Nguyen says when they made the decision to close after initially considering curbside pickup, the shutdown was only scheduled to last through March 27.
“As more and more news unravels every day, you’re like, ‘Oh wow, this is not a two-week thing, we’re in it for the long run,’” she says. So they’re actually considering the opposite, opening back up for takeout and delivery, potentially as soon as next week. “We don’t want to be closed for three months … we’re figuring out how to adapt our model.”
The thing that has restaurant owners worried is that there’s still so much uncertainty. No one feels like they’re in control.
“We're very concerned,” says Wiegmann, whose vegan eatery only opened less than three months ago (and whose buildout required them to take on quite a bit of debt). “We are concerned for our staff, we are concerned for our business—hell, we're concerned for our landlord.”
Klein describes feeling now both “fairly concerned and fairly confident.” They’ve been keeping busy—it sounds counterintuitive, but a lot of work goes into shutting down a restaurant. It’s not like they’ve sat around on their hands: He’s been cooking and prepping, giving away the food they couldn’t freeze or preserve to staff or to chef Justin Sutherland’s food drive or to neighbors. “I think the sheer scale of this thing is actually a little comforting,” he says. “We are literally all in it together, and we’ll get out of it together.”
All agree: The thing they need from us is to go out to eat after this is over.
“The country will get through this, and life will return to normal—maybe a new normal, but it will return,” Klein says. “I think we’ll all be anxious to get out and about, and the public does seem to truly want to support restaurants and small businesses through this.”
“It’s just sad, you know?” Nguyen says. “We love our patio season at the restaurant, and that feels very far from being a reality right now. We’re just trying to take it day by day.”
Update, 3/27 12:55 p.m.: An earlier version of this story stated that Reverie switched to curbside pickup after Walz's order, but while they considered it, they ultimately decided not to. We've updated the above to clarify that.