Restaurant, bar owners frustrated and resigned over slow pace of full reopening

A man standing in an outdoor bar space.
Tony Zaccardi is planning to make changes to the Palmer's Bar back patio before reopening. Gov. Tim Walz announced that bars and restaurants could serve sit-down customers at outside tables beginning June 1.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Some in the restaurant industry say they were shocked by Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement Wednesday that they could serve customers outside only beginning June 1. They were in the middle of other plans.

At the Cedar Inn in Minneapolis, manager Tim Scanlon said staff have been figuring out how to safely reopen his establishment since they closed in March.

”Indoor seating with restrictions and hand sanitizer and spacing and all that, we had that pretty well figured out,” Scanlon said of his bar that also serves food. “Now this outdoor seating has put us in a whole different bind.”

Bars and restaurants that have been closed for more than two months are scrambling to understand the governor’s guidelines that allow a partial reopening in June. Some owners of food and drink establishments are frustrated with the pace of the reopening, while others are looking for creative ways to reopen.

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In addition to outdoor seating, the governor’s latest policy requires reservations and a limit on 50 customers, with no more than four unrelated customers per table, families are permitted six.

“When they say ‘reservations required’, that doesn’t make any sense,” Scanlon said. “We’re just a walk-in place.”

In St. Paul, Brian Ingram, owner of Hope Breakfast Bar, said he understood the need for restaurants to close initially.

“Businesses needed to be closed to get their heads around what’s going on. That was difficult, it was financially crushing,” Ingram said, “but we understood that there needed to be some closure for us to get a handle on this, and really, frankly, for us to start redesigning our restaurants.”

A man puts bread in a paper bag.
Brian Ingram of Hope Breakfast Bar packs meals for delivery on Thursday at his restaurant in St. Paul.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

But he said Walz handled the announcement wrong. He thinks the governor should have prepared restaurants for what the partial reopening would look like, since not all restaurants have outside seating.

”You’re trying to get people to make a business based on 10 percent of what their restaurant would normally hold,” Ingram said. “You’d never make any money, you’d continue to lose money at a high rate of speed.”

Ingram said restaurant owners are installing expensive updates like partitions between tables or hands-free hand-washing stations.

He said lots of restaurants expecting to reopen in early June ordered food weeks in advance.

Movable partitions divide tables in a restaurant.
Partitions create barriers between tables at Hope Breakfast Bar in St. Paul. The owners have been putting safety measures in place and had hoped to reopen June 1.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Ingram estimates that his patio at Hope Breakfast Bar seats 12 to 16 people, which allows him to bring back a fraction of his 40 staffers. Still, he doesn’t see much alternative but to try to open soon.

At Palmer’s Bar in Minneapolis, owner Tony Zaccardi said he and his staff are mostly on board with the governor’s pace of reopening. Instead of opening in a week and a half, he’s going to observe how customers respond.

”I just want it to be a really exciting experience for people as they’re starting to get out of the house again and get comfortable going to bars,” he said.

Palmer’s has a large outdoor seating area, which Zaccardi is hoping to turn into the focal point of his business, partly by installing a vintage bar outside from the basement of north Minneapolis’ BJ’s Liquor Lounge, which closed last year.

Zaccardi said he’s focused on opening strategically and safely in order to avoid another wave of infections. He’s sure Palmer’s, which is over a century old, will come through it OK.

“It survived the first pandemic in 1918, it survived two world wars,” Zaccardi said. “We’re not going to let this one get us.”

A man wearing a bear costume talks to a man delivering beer.
Tony Zaccardi (right) tries on a Hamm's Beer bear costume while receiving a beer delivery from Dan Merimonti of Hohenstein's Distributing on Thursday.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Cities including Minneapolis have already signaled that they will issue temporary permits in response to the pandemic. St. Paul is also exploring ways to support restaurants, according to a spokesperson. Both cities are expected to announce proposals in the coming days.

In Belle Plaine, Minn., about 40 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, Colt Oldenburg of Oldenburg Brewing Company may get a permit from the city for expanded seating outside, either on the sidewalk or in the street.

Until Oldenburg decides on an approach or gets approval to expand outdoor seating, he’s getting by with just takeout orders.

“Considering the circumstances, we’re floating along. Revenue is down quite a bit but we’re just trying to minimize overhead and stay alive,” Oldenburg said. “There’s definitely people in harder situations than we’re in.”

Walz’s phased reopening was sharply criticized by Hospitality Minnesota, an association that represents businesses in the restaurant industry. The association called for a targeted relief package to help food service businesses.

The DFL governor said in a statement Wednesday that he understood concerns from restaurants about the pace of reopening, but that it’s required to keep people safe. 

“Our restaurants and bars are an integral part of the social fabric of Minnesota, and it has been heartbreaking to see this pandemic wreak havoc on our hospitality industry,” Walz said. “While the virus won’t yet allow for business as usual, let’s do what we do best after winter in Minnesota and head outside.”

The next stage of business reopenings will include some indoor seating, according to the state’s safety plan. There is no exact timeline for when Minnesota will move into that phase.