'Pouring money from my pocket': Mpls. skyway business owners worried about slow return when COVID relents

A restaurant in the skyway has its door shut.
I Grill, an Indian restaurant in the Tritech Office Center, closed its dine-in service last March, even before Gov. Tim Walz's first executive order to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

The pandemic economy that’s been a boon to companies such as Amazon and Zoom has been awful for Ather Jameel. He owns I Grill, an Indian restaurant in an office building near Minneapolis City Hall.

As soon as it opened in 2016, lunch hour crowds followed the smell of curry and masala through the skyway bridges and lined up dozens deep in the lobby. But when COVID-19 arrived, those crowds vanished.

“There’s hardly anybody in the skyway during lunch. So I can’t have that much of a staff to open the food line.”

Jameel needs at least 100 customers a day just to cover overhead. Last March, with nowhere near that number coming in, the restaurateur closed his dining room even before Gov. Tim Walz’s first executive order.

With a majority of office employees working from home, the 9 1/2-mile labyrinth of bridges and walkways of the Minneapolis skyway system is mostly deserted.

A man poses for a photo.
Ather Jameel, the owner of I Grill. He's staying afloat by serving takeout, getting a break on rent from his landlord and using personal savings.
Courtesy of Ather Jameel

By one estimate, 3 out of 5 skyway-level businesses have closed, at least temporarily. Other restaurant and shop owners are hanging on in the hopes that COVID-19 vaccines will spark a rebound.

Jameel is staying afloat by serving takeout, getting a break on rent from his landlord and using personal savings.

“I’m pouring money from my pocket,” he says.

The once-bustling Minneapolis skyway system has the feel of a declining shopping mall — many lights are turned off; gates are closed in front of coffee and cookie shops; even the U.S. Bank branch in the U.S. Bank building near Government Plaza is shuttered. 

But there are some signs of life.

“I have no idea how I’ve been able to stay in business, but thankfully I have,” said Robert Swanson, the manager and sole employee at the Fixology shop in the Six Quebec building. 

Swanson is still fixing watches, phones and other gadgets, just far fewer of them. His customers today are mostly people who live in downtown apartments and condos; he compares every day downtown now to Saturdays before COVID-19 forced so many to stay home.

The Minneapolis Downtown Council estimates that around 216,000 people worked in the central business district just before the pandemic started. The council’s president and CEO Steve Cramer said a recent survey found several major office towers are less than 16 percent occupied.

“It’s a dramatic decline, that’s for sure,” Cramer said. “And we do believe it’s going to start to build back as confidence grows around the public health conditions that we’re all experiencing and confronting.”

Cramer is not expecting workers to stampede back to their cubicles. He says human resources departments are planning for phased returns. And working from home at least a few days a week could become a permanent fixture of business culture.

Bill Junco is the owner of Lindskoog Florist.
Bill Junco owns Lindskoog Florist, a century-old business now located in the Oracle Building in downtown Minneapolis.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

That’s something Bill Junco thinks about. Corporate customers are a major part of Junco’s Oracle Building business, Lindskoog Florist.

“I’ve talked to different people that say they may work three days at home and come into the office two days during the week,” Junco said.

Even with a possible end to the pandemic on the horizon, Junco said he hopes to expand his customer base far outside the skyway system.

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