For Minnesota restaurants, it’s about survival now

An empty parking lot with a sign that says "We are open."
The parking lot of Joseph’s Restaurant and Bar has only a few cars parked in its lot Monday. It’s been a popular gathering place in Stillwater for decades. But owners Joe and Mary Kohler said they're barely hanging on.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Joe and Mary Kohler are barely hanging on.

“I don’t think in my wildest dreams I ever thought something like this would ever happen,” Joe Kohler said.

He and Mary own Joseph’s Restaurant and Bar, a popular gathering place in Stillwater. Like thousands of other restaurants in Minnesota, Joseph’s is struggling to survive. It has been more than a month since an executive order put its dining rooms off-limits.

Some are selling takeout food and, now, alcoholic beverages. In normal times, Joe Kohler said, he employs about 100 people. Not anymore.

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“They’re all without jobs right now,” he said. “I think I’ve managed to save like five people that can work for me right now to do a little bit of takeout service that we’re doing.”

Revenue is down about 70 percent, but not expenses. “You’ve got your real estate taxes, your gas and electric,” he said. “I mean, you have things that are just constant, your rent. Those things don’t go away.”

Joe Kohler said he’s been scrambling to cut costs: No more trash collection. The music service has been silenced.

A couple stand in front of a building with "OPEN" signs in the windows
Mary and Joe Kohler stand outside their business, Joseph’s Restaurant and Bar. Like many other restaurateurs, the Kohler’s are barely hanging on. “I don’t think in my wildest dreams I ever thought something like this would ever happen.”
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

“We even went to the cable company and said, ‘You know what? Shut our TVs off. There’s no one here to watch them.’ So it’s little things like that — our rug service was $100 a week. Well, we don’t need that right now. If we could save ourselves $100 a week, let’s do it,” he said.

He said he’s also in the process of trying to secure help from a variety of government assistance programs.

The battle the Kohlers are fighting in hopes of saving their business is playing out at restaurants everywhere. 

“They have been doing different things with their food,” said Liz Rammer, the head of Hospitality Minnesota, a trade group that represents the industry. “Some have been doing pre-packaged heat-and-serve kinds of meals … [or] limited their menu, with fewer options from which to choose, which helps them be more efficient with their operations and their raw ingredient orders.”

Rammer said some restaurants have given up on offering takeout because it wasn’t bringing in enough money to cover the cost of staying open.

She said some have closed temporarily, others permanently.

She said many restaurants can’t handle more debt, even if it comes at low interest. And she said the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which rewards employers who keep workers on the job, is of little use to restaurants that have eliminated staff or dramatically downsized — like Joseph’s in Stillwater.

Joe Kohler said he hopes government officials will soon allow in-restaurant dining. He is already thinking about ways to do it safely by spacing people.

“If we were given the ability to reopen at 50 percent occupancy, that would be like a life jacket to most of us,” he said. “That would really help us tremendously to start to recoup some of this loss that we have.”

Liz Rammer said Hospitality Minnesota sent the governor proposed safety protocols to follow when reopening. She emphasized that the restaurant industry is accustomed to following public health rules.

“It’s always been a highly regulated industry anyway, from a food safety and health standpoint, so our operators are really used to this,” she said. “And I think  that when businesses are offered the opportunity to resume operations, we will see many of these practices continuing on for the foreseeable future.”

In the meantime, Joe Kohler said, people wanting to help restaurants should consider making a down payment on future meals.

“If you could buy a gift certificate from us, that would be ideal,” he suggested. “That would give us money up front to pay the things that we have to pay. That would help tremendously. If you want to just order food to go, that helps, so I would say the best thing would be to buy gift certificates that you know you’re going to use.”

As it currently stands, restaurant dining rooms in Minnesota are ordered closed through May 3. Whenever the reopening begins, the restaurant landscape could look very different from the one we remember.