Business & Economy

'Last 8 months have been quite the ride': How one restaurateur is managing 2020

A man sits inside of an empty restaurant.
"The last eight months have been quite the ride,” said Mike Miller, owner of Lake Tavern & Grill in Woodbury, Minn. “What we’ve tried to do is mostly minimize the damage but it is damaging. I can’t sit here and tell you being open for takeout is an economic boom for us. It’s not.”
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Many bars and restaurants are struggling to stay in business amid the pandemic and Minnesota’s latest clampdown on the hospitality industry is making it even more difficult for them. The owner of a usually thriving Woodbury restaurant says his industry is looking for help. 

Lakes Tavern and Grill is a popular spot in Woodbury. Typically it does brisk business. Now, the parking lot is empty. Inside it’s oddly quiet without customers.

A man sits inside of an empty restaurant.
The exterior of Lakes Tavern & Grill in Woodbury, Minn.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Owner Mike Miller says he — along with the people he still employees — has been using a lot down time for deep cleaning.

“Lots of projects,” Miller said, sitting at his empty bar.

Miller owns Lakes Tavern along with two other metro-area restaurants.

He’s upbeat, but also frank about how difficult this year has been.

“The last eight months have been quite the ride,” Miller said. “We’ve tried to mostly minimize the damage, but it is damaging.”

Miller says his menu was never designed with takeout in mind.

He is confident his balance sheet is strong enough to make it through the pandemic,  and he knows he’s in a much better position than the 80 people — more than half his workforce — he’s had to lay off.

“It weighs tremendously on me,” Miller said. “I love the people I work with. It’s brutal. 2020 has not been good for a lot of my employees.”

That’s especially true now during the holidays and when there are no longer significantly enhanced unemployment benefits.

“We hope it doesn’t last too long but as we both know, who knows?” Miller said. “This is unprecedented.”

Miller said he better prepared for the current shutdown than he was for the first one in March. And this time, he has a lifeline:  Miller also owns a Green Mill restaurant in Hudson, Wis., just across the state line that is still open.

“Our business has actually increased because people are going across the border to go out,” Miller said.

He’s been able to send inventory from his two Minnesota restaurants to the Wisconsin Green Mill.

An outside view of a restaurant.
Mike Miller says his restaurant in Hudson, Wis., is going pretty well. “Our business has actually increased because people are going across the border to go out.”
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Miller doesn't think his Minnesota eateries need to be closed.

“I don’t think it’s exactly as equitable as it needs to be,” Miller explained. “I believe that restaurants are kind of singled out.”

Miller points to bars and restaurants that didn’t follow the reopening safety rules for the second shutdown.

“I kind of feel like we’re paying for other people’s problems that they created and there’s not much we can do about it at this point,” Miller said.

The Minnesota Legislature convenes for a special session Monday to extend Gov. Tim Walz's emergency powers. The governor also wants lawmakers to take up a COVID-19 relief bill. 

Miller says his industry urgently needs help from the state and federal governments.

“A lot of people are right on the edge and once you go over the edge, I don’t think they’re coming back,” Miller said. “We’ve seen already in the last eight, nine months, a number of restaurants, prominent ones, closing.”

In the meantime, Miller is getting welcome cash flow help from his annual Black Friday promotion this year.

“We’re selling gift cards to a restaurant that’s essentially closed. I had no idea what expect, but the demand was tremendous,” Miller said.

Miller has no expectation Walz will allow restaurants to reopen later this month when his current order expires. But he predicts a big comeback when reopening arrives. He says the fundamentals of his industry are strong.

“I believe that once the immunization starts and people are not dying like they have been and people are safer, people feel comfortable coming out, our restaurant economy will come back to where it was,” Miller said.

Miller also says he’s on the look out to expand his collection of restaurants. He says there could be opportunities to acquire restaurants that closed. Miller said he’ll also consider ways to make his restaurants more takeout-friendly so in the future, he’ll be better positioned.

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