Restaurants Were Already Changing Before COVID-19

Twin Cities restaurants have closed, chefs have kept going, and the dining scene still has a lot of evolution ahead
Orders stack up as Red Wagon Pizza pivots to takeout and delivery
Orders stack up as Red Wagon Pizza pivots to takeout and delivery

Photo by Lucy Hawthorne

I had a feeling it would be my last dinner. Saturday night. March 14. An Italian wine dinner at Eastside in Minneapolis with my wife and our friends Don and Rachel. Social distancing was in the news. Ryan Cook’s food was spectacular, the wines were perfect. But there was unease. Nervousness.

We had the bar to ourselves as we closed down Town Hall Brewery with pours of the Ol’ Jack Frost imperial stout’s chocolate note, an ideal dessert, and we knew. Even before Gov. Tim Walz closed all the restaurants, my wife and I had decided to stay away.

Local favorites like Cafe Latte in St. Paul have adopted curbside takeout service
Local favorites like Cafe Latte in St. Paul have adopted curbside takeout service

Photo by Caroline Yang

Forget about my job as a food critic: I’ve always loved restaurants. I love the energy, the community, the spirit of the dreamer who, against all odds, puts everything on the line to make people happy. Life without being in restaurants, for me, has been unthinkable. I love the food, the cocktails, the wine—but even more importantly, I love the people. I love seeing Bennett at Tattersall, Amy at the Bachelor Farmer, Bryce at Cafe Latte, Jami at Centro, and Yoon at Lotus.

Yet. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, changes have been simmering in our restaurant community. Sit-down restaurants have been struggling. Cooks and dishwashers have been hard to come by, and changing dining habits, often blamed on millennials, have swept through all age groups. Look, it’s no mistake that we published a huge package on takeout and delivery food a couple months ago. People are starting to choose convenience over quality, the ability to eat slightly cold pad thai in their pajamas on their sofa over the communal experience of spending an hour in a restaurant.

Jason DeRusha holds a takeout meal from Zettas on Eat Street
Jason DeRusha holds a takeout meal from Zettas on Eat Street

Selfie by Jason DeRusha

As I write this, the future of Minnesota restaurants is uncertain. How long will they have to remain closed? How many will stay closed for good? What will happen to the hundreds of thousands of people who were laid off? And what changes will we see for good? We’ve danced around so many of these things.

Tips: Servers forced into unemployment, who have been collecting cash tips that don’t appear on their checks, may be having a tough time collecting fair unemployment wages. Yes, servers love being able to get a big pile of cash after a seven-hour shift on a Friday night. But if you’ve been claiming $30,000 in income when you make $45,000, that’s a problem. Will we see more places include labor in the cost of the food?

Paid Sick Leave: Not just a restaurant issue, but we can’t have people coming to prepare food while they’re sick. This isn’t just a luxury, it’s a life-or-death situation.

Technology: You won’t be able to get away with an outdated PDF menu and a website with no obvious address on it. Online ordering, whether via website or app, is here. Too many restaurants have avoided this.

Service: People like food trucks and fast-casual. They want to be able to pay first, then eat, then leave. Service is defined more by a vibe in the room and the attitude of the person taking your order than it is by how quickly your water glass is refilled.

Red Wagon Pizza
Red Wagon Pizza

Photo by Lucy Hawthorne

Frankly, the cost of reopening restaurants is going to be tremendous. Sure, landlords will defer rent for a month or two, but then they’ll have their own mortgages to pay. If you were a bank or investor, would you give out a small-business loan so a restaurant could fire back up?  Restaurants that own their real estate will have an advantage here, but real disruption is likely.

“People always want to celebrate and spend time around each other,” says Peter Campbell, owner of Red Wagon Pizza Company in south Minneapolis. “We need affection, we need connection. That won’t change. But the number of restaurants where you can go and congregate will change.”

So, given the opportunity to rebuild after a fire, do you rebuild the same house, or do you build something new, something that fits the times and is built for the future? I am hopeful that when restaurants do reopen, I can sit down again at Eastside and Town Hall. I’m optimistic that whatever comes next in our scene will still allow us to share laughs with friends, celebrations with family, and moments of joy with each other.

Read more of Jason’s coverage—where he reports behind the scenes of local restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic—by clicking here.

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