'There’s this pent-up demand': Minnesota restaurants welcome the return of diners

Two men stand in a restaurant with facemasks.
The Jarvis family owns the Historic Afton House Inn south of Stillwater, Minn., along the St. Croix River. Brothers Dan, left, and David Jarvis oversee the hotel, its fine dining restaurant along with an attached wine bar and another restaurant and bar and three dinner boats.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

At the Historic Afton House Inn, brothers Dan and David Jarvis oversee a family business that includes a hotel, its fine dining restaurant along with an attached wine bar, another restaurant and bar and three dinner boats.

After a pandemic-related ban on indoor dining during the usually busy winter holiday season, they’re delighted to be back open, even at half capacity.

David Jarvis says the past year has been extremely difficult.

“We put our heart and our soul into these restaurants as operators,” he said. “It’s blood, sweat and tears, literally.”

David Jarvis said the unknowns and the fears of not surviving have taken a toll. But he’s glad to be back open and optimistic about the future.

“The last two weeks we’ve been open, we’ve been really busy — we’ve been busy to the point of 50 percent capacity right so yeah, I know there’s this pent-up demand,” David Jarvis said. “The people that are coming in, they’re excited to be out and they’re going to keep going out.”

“I think a lot of those people do want to get out and go to a restaurant and have a nice dinner and be waited on versus cooking meals in their house,” said Dan Jarvis.

The shift to limited in-person dining came as some restaurant operators openly defied the state's ban on indoor service — and many of them remain critical of the current restrictions on capacity.

Dan Jarvis worries another shutdown could come.

“I think the restaurants and bars that are not following the rules could affect the restaurant and bars that are where there may be another shutdown due to people not following the rules,” he said.

The Minnesota Department of Health is urging individuals and businesses to report noncompliance. Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff says he’s heard the complaints about some establishments not following the rules.

“We need people to let us know so I encourage businesses to call and let us know,” Huff said. “It’s not fair for businesses to choose to defy the rules and the jeopardize the health of their own employees, the health of their own customers but also the health of everyone else.”

Liz Rammer, the head of Hospitality Minnesota, says she thinks most bars and restaurants are following COVID-19 safety rules their own industry helped write. 

Rammer says many bar and restaurant owners are hanging on by a thread. She says the return of inside dining and drinking service is critical to their survival.

“We need to make sure that they stay opened,” Rammer said.  “This is not an industry that can handle the yo-yo on and off switch any longer.“

Rob Scott, who owns Lucy’s Burgers in White Bear Lake, has removed several tables from his restaurant so there’s no confusion about capacity and social distancing. 

A man stands behind a restaurant bar under construction.
Rob Scott owns Lucy's Burgers and plans to expand at a new site in Blaine, Minn. While others struggled during the pandemic, Scott decided to expand and take on more risk.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

Like many bar and restaurant operators, Scott says he’s happy to be open again for inside service.

A man stands behind a restaurant bar under construction.
Despite the pandemic, Rob Scott, who owns Lucy's Burgers in White Bear Lake, is planning to open a new restaurant in Blaine in the coming months.
Mark Zdechlik | MPR News

And, as others in his industry struggle to keep what they have, Scott decided to expand and take on even more risk.

“When life hands me a pandemic, I open a second restaurant,” Scott said while standing in an empty space in Blaine, where he plans to open another location as soon as March. He says it’s a renter’s market for restaurateurs.

“The space came with all the restaurant equipment, all the chairs and booths and tables and down to the forks and knives, so we won’t have quite as much up-front expense as we did on our existing location,” Scott said. He says he was even able to negotiate free rent for much of 2021.

Most in the hospitality industry are looking forward to warmer weather so leery customers can eat and drink outside. Scott says only part of that has to due with the pandemic.

“We will be excited to get back outside — really no different than any spring in Minnesota,” he said.

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