School of the Wise is under construction.
Dozens of wine bottles cover the recently refinished tables. Chairs are stacked shoulder-high. One man is painting the walls white, while another two employees manage the kitchen, answer phones and bring food out to customers waiting in their cars.
Owner Brandon Wallis takes a quick phone call about the latest addition to the cafe/bar/restaurant: deli cases. When COVID restrictions shut down his dine-in services in November, he took it as an opportunity for a serious refresh — after 16 years of serving coffee, sandwiches and liquor, downtown Victoria’s School of the Wise is in the process of converting into a deli.
A mid-November Saturday morning changed his plans. An icemaker started a fire that resulted in serious water, smoke and electrical damage. They were planning on running take-out service throughout the renovations and winter, but now?
“There’s not much we can even do. The whole kitchen is going to be gutted. We can try and do gift cards, coffee by the pound and wine sales, but we’re really limited,” Wallis said.
Local restaurants have been hit with COVID-19 roadblocks for months, and the impenetrable winter is yet another obstacle. With many relying on patio tables and other outdoor seating, the Minnesota cold combined with limited indoor dining restrictions means a major loss of potential revenue when many independent restaurants need it most.
The deli cases won’t be delivered until February, so Wallis had already planned on a months-long dining in shutdown. But with the fire’s extensive repairs thrown into the mix, they may not be able to sell any food, dine-in or takeout, until March or April.
“I haven’t taken a paycheck in eight months...I had to go back to car detailing, the industry I left for a reason, to help pay the bills,” Wallis said. “I don’t think everyone realizes how rough it is for restaurants right now.”
Committing to curbsideNa’s Thai Cafe in downtown Chanhassen is in a different situation — their phone lines for take-out are ringing off the hook.
The family-owned restaurant was only closed for half a day in March while they figured out curbside pickup. Takeout was already a large portion of their business pre-pandemic, but that first Friday, they didn’t leave the kitchen until midnight because of the high volume of orders.
“We ran out of everything. The community has really stepped up and shown us so much love to help keep us alive,” said General Manager Christina Kirksey.
The family hired seven new employees, shortened their hours and got a “burner phone number” to help with ordering and pick-up. Until the cold set in, they had a patio for dine-in service, and now only have a few tables inside. (Though if a die-hard Minnesotan wants to endure the cold, they could make something work.)
The switch to primarily takeout hasn’t come without challenges, namely longer wait times. As the night progresses, a 45-minute wait turns into an hour-and-a-half, which turns into two hours, said Adam Kirksey, who handles most of the curbside orders. They’ve received some questions from regulars and new customers, but assure people that they’re working as fast as they can.
“Our goal is to never compromise the quality of our food just to get it out faster,” Christina said. “The demand is really there. We promise, we’re moving as fast as we can.”
While food delivery services have thrived during COVID, Na’s has stayed away from Uber Eats, Grubhub and the like because of their high fees — the companies typically takes between 20 to 30%, not including additional charges if their restaurant is promoted by the apps.
Despite not signing any contract, DoorDash added Na’s to the app without their consent, resulting in confusion and anger from some customers who were overcharged by DoorDash. Steering clear of delivery means losing out on some orders, but the choice is a necessary one to keep Na’s as profitable as possible, said Christina.
“If we have the capacity to do that ourselves in the future, and it makes sense, then we’re interested. We never want to isolate any of our customer base, we just can’t keep our profit margin (with those fees),” she said.
Revenue ebbs and flows, though the family is staying positive. For every negative revenue, there are dozens of thankful customers, ready to encourage and support Na’s, the two said.
“We don’t always do everything right every day. But we try, and it just feels good knowing that we have that community behind us,” Christina said.
Gov. Tim Walz’s new restrictions outlined this week wil again impact restaurants with its four-week pause on dine-in services.
New seating, new connectionsWith the parking lot patio closed for the winter, 50% capacity rules in effect and no counter service, Shakopee diner staple Wampach’s, which has been family-owned and operated since its opening in 1958, has been forced to change their decades-old ways.
Customers had slowly grown accustomed to the new seating and social distancing, but one thing they didn’t like? The closing of the indoor counter, which was mandated by the governor’s new orders and went into effect Nov. 14.
The counter was a hangout spot for the many regulars who come for coffee and company, explained Dave Johnson, whose family bought Wampach’s in 2001.
“A lot of our regulars are almost like friends. They come in at the same time on the same days, we know them by first names and they come in and get their ‘spot,’” Johnson said. “When they walked in on the 14th, they didn’t know what to do.”
Luckily, the diner’s dozen booths are still open for business. A customer built plexiglass barriers to put between booths, which opened up more space. Regulars missed their old spot, but Johnson said he’s seen more people sitting together and having conversations now that they’re limited to booths.
“A single guy might feel a little weird taking up a whole table, but then everyone starts sitting together. They still come in and spend time together, just in a different spot,” he said.
Business is down about 30%, though the diner received a PPP loan and is expecting more funding in December to help with operating expenses. Some regulars even donated cash, which the Johnsons used for both the restaurant and those who otherwise couldn’t afford a meal.
Whether it’s monetary donations, good reviews or (in Na’s case) flowers sent to kitchen staff, Wampach’s, Na’s and School of the Wise have continued to receive support from their communities throughout the hard times.
“When people ask how they can support us, I say whether it’s takeout, dine-in, curbside, just keep ordering food,” Johnson said. “Keep doing what they’re doing, because they’re doing great.”