Safeguarding diners from COVID-19: Here's one St. Paul restaurant's plan

Movable partitions divide tables in a restaurant.
Partitions create barriers between tables May 21, 2020, at Hope Breakfast Bar in St. Paul. The owners put safety measures in place ahead of reopening.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Hope Breakfast Bar in St. Paul is open again for business.

Indoor dining in Minnesota has resumed after Gov. Tim Walz ordered restaurants to close on March 16 in an effort to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

While Hope Breakfast was closed, Ingram used his resources and connections to provide food to people experiencing food insecurity because of the pandemic and economic recession. Ingram estimates he served about 10,000 meals a week for at least 12 weeks. That’s 120,000 meals served since mid-March.

Now, Hope Breakfast Bar has rolled up its garage door and has resumed serving diners. The eatery reopened June 10, and Ingram had the best weekend since he opened the restaurant in September of last year.  

We visited Ingram at his restaurant to talk about some of the safety changes he’s made there. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This past weekend was the first weekend where you could have 50 percent capacity indoors as well as outdoors. How did it go?

It was the best weekend we've ever had. I think people were ready to get out and come out and try to enjoy some of the summer again. Our patio was completely full and inside we actually had to hold people at the front door and not let them in. We've been doing reservations. We say 90 minutes, but they wanted to stay longer because they have been cooped up in the house.

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

How is it working?

What we've seen so much of is people just aren't in the habit of making a reservation and we get lots of people that show up at the front doors.

So, we have to, very quickly, walk them through on their smartphone, make a reservation, get them all set up. This is so we can track who is coming into the restaurant and who is not coming into the restaurant.

You've got a patio here, also street tables with food on them. Was this something the city of St. Paul allowed you to do?

Yes. We added what we call our “sidewalk cafe.” And during the pandemic, for the last 15 weeks, we've been operating as a food pantry. We call it our free farmers' market. That's our big table out front where any family in need can come and get food. The city of St. Paul has been working with us for the last 15 weeks to be able to do that.

And you're still doing that, even though now you're serving meals as well?

Yes. We have fed about 72,000 people in the last 15 weeks and we want to make sure that we are still taking care of them.

You opened in September of 2019. You had basically six months of business before the pandemic hit. How did last week's business compare to anything you did before?

It was about 40 percent busier than our best day ever. We don’t have a huge dining room and having all of this outside space for tables really expands our footprint for dining. So even at 50 percent outside and inside, we have a bigger footprint now than before.

You set up a food pantry but I'm wondering how you stayed in business. Did you do takeout? Did you do delivery?

We couldn't because we were feeding about 10,000 people a week. We just couldn't be open for takeout and all those other things that a lot of restaurants were doing. We posted online “any family in need of a meal, please contact us.” The first day we had about 100 requests. The second day we had over 2,000 requests. I looked at my wife and said, “we can't continue to operate as a for-profit restaurant.” So, we shut down, dug into our own bank account and started feeding the people.

It was amazing. All the people that rallied behind us, other restaurants started bringing us food. The community started showing up, saying, “Here's $10, there's $25, here's a $1,000.” We created a nonprofit called Give Hope. And we have that trailer over there where we do mobile outreach and go to the Colin Powell Center. We've been down in Minneapolis where they're rebuilding on Lake Street and feeding thousands of people. So, we very quickly pivoted to being a nonprofit.

Have you pivoted back now to being a regular restaurant? Are you going to have that as part of your business at all?

Even with the name Hope, before the pandemic, a lot of our business was “give back to the community.” We were working a lot with the children’s hospital across the street. So, it was pretty easy for us to pivot into being a community kitchen. Now that we've kind of transitioned back, it's probably 75 percent for-profit restaurant and 25 percent nonprofit.

Did you take advantage of any of the small business loans, like the Paycheck Protection Program, to keep going?

We were able to get the PPP loan and really what that allowed us to do was pay our volunteers. They didn't expect to get paid, but we were able to pay all of them about $500 a week during all of this using the loan. We were able to take care of our staff and take care of those folks. So that was the way we used it, to pay our staff and pay the volunteers that were coming.

Tell me about the adaptations you've made for indoor dining.

Our dining room is considered a patio because of our giant garage door. We have that fresh air that's coming in. We have partitions (between tables).

We changed the seating of the booth. These are angled and they kind of create little kind of quadrants. So you can sit here with a Plexiglas shield up between the tables. We've tried to redesign all of it.

We've changed out the air conditioning system and put in HEPA filters. We've turned up the fans on the air conditioner to increase air flow.

Up front at our hostess stand, there’s a sanitation stand where you can sanitize your hands before you come in the restaurant, when you leave the restaurant. Before you would have cleaning supplies, like cleaning bottles and Clorox wipes. You used to hide that kind of stuff, now people want to see it.

Any reluctance from your staff to return to work?

When we first said, “hey, we're going to reopen,” maybe 25 percent of the staff said, “yeah, I'm ready to come back.” They came in, they saw the partitions, saw what we were doing. Then they sent out text messages and emails to all their coworkers. And now we have 100 percent of our staff that has returned.

How many people are you employing and how does it compare to pre-pandemic?

It's actually gone up, which is really weird. We have about 50 people on staff now. It's like a brand-new restaurant. You have to over hire and retrain and get everybody up and running. Before that, we were operating with about 25 people. We've almost doubled our restaurant staff.

When it comes to the diners, what's the reaction been like?

It's been so good. But again, I equate it to political parties or religious parties. You're either in the camp that you wear a mask or you're in the camp that you shouldn't be wearing a mask and you want no part of it. We're in the hospitality industry and normally the answer was always yes. If a guest asks for something, the answer's yes. And we've never had to police guests and say, “I need you to put on a mask if you're walking into the bathroom, I need you to do these things.”

Let's say a customer comes in and they don't want to wear a mask to their table or in the restaurant. Do you still seat them?

We'll still seat them. The guidelines say 6 feet of separation. But it's a really tough thing to try to police the folks that don't want to wear them.

So we're just trying to make sure that they stay safe. We have a box of free masks and will give a mask to any person that wants one. And then if they were just to be hanging out in the dining room, we would have to ask him to go back to their table and sit at their table.

How much did this all cost and how did you pay for it?

We spent about $36,000 upgrading the restaurant to get ready for COVID. We paid for it with money we were setting aside money to buy a house this year and — we're not buying a house this year!

It was just was like opening a new restaurant. You had to retrain your staff. They were off for 15 weeks, so there was a lot of retraining. It was one thing to clean the restaurant, now you have to sanitize the restaurant. Those are completely different things.

Every menu now, you’re throwing away menus where before if they looked good and nobody spilled anything on it, you could reuse them. You can't do that now.

In the old days, we would have probably just two cooks on and probably two servers. Now, if you look around, there's five front-of-the-house staff members, there's five back-of-the-house staff members. There is just so much more cleaning and sanitizing that has to take place now, so our labor is about double what it was before this.

At 50 percent capacity, once the pent-up demand is over. Can you survive?

No. We would be out of business if this continued long term. Right now we know there's a honeymoon period. People want to get out of their house. If we’re running at 50 percent capacity and it costs twice as much to operate, we would be dead in the water.