MOORHEAD — In what restaurant owners described as a whirlwind of heartache, they’re frantically trying to help staff and readjust business models to prepare for unilateral closing across Minnesota.
On Monday, March 16, Gov. Tim Walz called for the closure of bars and restaurants for dine-in customers in an effort to flatten the curve against spreading the coronavirus. As of 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 17, Minnesota had 60 people and North Dakota had three who tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Although many restaurant owners in Moorhead are scrambling to find ways to keep needed employees, they’re forced to let many go. Hoping the government, landlords and local leaders will step in to help financially, restaurants of all flavors are turning to the only methods they can to help stay afloat: deliveries and takeout orders.
Owner of Thai Orchid Restaurant Anne Osa believes the Minnesota government made the correct call to halt further spread of the coronavirus.
“But it’s made things very difficult to run the business,” Osa said. “Because (at) my business we’re cooking for ourselves, we might be okay, but not okay for our staff. We have to turn everyone back home at 5 p.m. and stay home for two weeks. And we don’t have enough money to pay them over the break.”
Because hers is a small, family-run business, she is giving employees rice and meat instead of money, Osa said. The restaurant is also shifting gears to focus on deliveries and takeout to help pay overhead costs of more than $4,000 a month in just rent and utilities.
She’s changing opening hours to last all day from 11 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. and will most likely be using a food delivery service.
Thai Orchid sous chef Erick Quintero doesn’t know what he is going to do. With hours left before forced closure, he was worried.
“I’m screwed. This is my only source of income,” Quintero said. “I don’t know what else I can do. Will the government do something to help? I don’t know, but I’m pretty much lost.”
If he finds another job, maybe he will lose the job he loves, he said.
“There are a lot of people working in the food industry, but right now, I’m going to wait this week out and if nothing happens, well, I don’t know. This could be the last day,” Quintero said.
Tity Osa, 8, the owner’s daughter, came out to give Quintero a hard time about him being a “half noob” at playing Minecraft.
“I’m scared,” Tity said. “But still, my lungs are good. So far I’m not that-that worried.”
Just before the normal closing time for the lunch crowd, Kathy Anderson, of Moorhead, came into the restaurant. She asked for a takeout and delivery menu because she wants to help local businesses in the upcoming weeks.
“I’m here to say that I want to help,” Anderson said. “I’m very concerned, but I have all the trust in the world with our state and local government, and the federal as well.”
During a busy weekend just one week ago, Micah Leitel and Anna Weisenburger, co-owners of Rustica Eatery and Tavern, knew change was coming. But it came in the “blink of an eye,” Leitel said.
“We pretty much looked at each other and said 'this is going to be the last weekend of normal,'” Weisenburger said.
“Last night at 6 p.m., we heard our entire business was changing, and within an hour we started to get texts from employees asking what’s going on,” Leitel said. “It’s very difficult to switch your business plan in two hours. It’s been a lot to think about, a lot to chew on.”
In a way, Leitel and Weisenburger were relieved after Walz made the declaration, because the decision affects all restaurants the same, and information from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House was confusing. Now, they can get “creative within those parameters,” Leitel said.
“With only a recommendation to close, someone else has the option of not following it out, and that’s what we saw in downtown last weekend, and that’s what is going to cause a problem two weeks down the road,” Weisenburger said.
“People need to understand that this is a serious thing. Social distancing isn’t just a hashtag, it’s for the health of the community,” Leitel said.
Instead of staying open Tuesday, March 17, they decided to take an administrative day and talk to staff about their concerns. They’re also considering a partnership for delivery services, and will offer food for takeout.
“If someone wants to get a quick bite, we don’t want them to have to sift through a bunch of menu options. Our goal is a limited changing menu. But even with takeout, we’re still here to serve the guests so if they want something, we can get it to them,” Leitel said.
Kathlene Shih and her husband, David, own the Snap Dragon, a restaurant that offers a Chinese buffet. Now, they’re debating whether to activate in-house delivery services or hire an outside company. They had to let high school student employees go, but are trying to find ways to keep employees with families on the payroll.
“I know there are other states leaving it up to the private sector to make that determination, but the positive about it coming from the top down is it’s unilateral,” Shih said. “We don’t have some doing it and some not doing it. I see it as a positive unilateral decision. Obviously, it gets sticky when the government tells you how to run your private business, but with the information we’re faced with, we’re in tight quarters. It seems prudent at this point.”
Shih said in the past deliveries and takeout put a strain on the kitchen, but they will be doing all they can to help make ends meet, and she hopes that area restaurants and other businesses might learn new ways to be profitable.
“This feels almost like a social experiment on how will we come out and do we go back to where we were, or do we hopefully evolve and become stronger and more efficient?” Shih said.
“That sense that people aren’t heeding those precautions ... you almost have to sort of force the hand in order to make the issue real.”
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