FARGO — The meeting wasn’t as much secret as it was informal.
A group of eight local restaurant owners convened March 18 at Blackbird Woodfire, 206 Broadway, to try and decide what to do since the coronavirus effectively brought their livelihoods to an abrupt halt.
Dan Hurder, managing partner of The Boiler Room, Twist, Otter Supper Club & Lodge and Chef’s Table Catering, was there.
“Mostly our plan was to get together and talk and figure out what we can do in the immediate future to save ourselves,” Hurder said.
Like the rest of the world, the beleaguered restaurant owners were overwhelmed with the constant stream of information, the loss of profits, the employee layoffs, and the very real prospect of reconfiguring their business models to somehow remain afloat through an uncertain future.
It would be another day before North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum would order restaurants and bars closed to in-door dining and gathering, but Hurder said the small group had already decided they should close, save for delivery and take-out orders.
There was also a question of what patrons could do who were willing and wanting to support their local restaurants.
Hurder did some quick math.
“If 25% of the Fargo/Moorhead/West Fargo community (61,500 people) purchased a single $100 gift card from their favorite independent restaurant, we could immediately inject $6,150,000 into the economy,” Hurder would later write on Facebook. “And all you are doing is making an advanced deposit on a meal or a delicious craft cocktail that you get to enjoy whenever we all finally get to get back to ‘normal.’”
Five people representing at least seven restaurants had a follow-up meeting March 20 at Rustica Eatery & Tavern, 315 Main Ave., Moorhead, vowing to stick together to help navigate the as-yet uncertainties of looking for assistance.
By March 20, at a press conference in the Fargo City Hall chambers, local restaurateur Randy Thorson, who owns bars and restaurants in three states and employs approximately 800 people, said he was asking government officials for a zero-percent bridge loan from the rainy day fund to help local bars and restaurants get through the next couple of weeks.
“We know that when we open back up again, those sales that we create can pay half of that funding back again right away,” Thorson said.
Nikki Berglund, owner of Luna Fargo, Sol Ave. Kitchen, and Bernie's Wines and Liquors, said she’s shifting some of her restaurant employees to her liquor store, which is still doing brisk business. She employs approximately 30 people in her restaurants.
“We’ve just told our staff it’s day-to-day,” Berglund said.
Waiting for word on what emergency assistance packages would look like, Berglund said the informal meeting almost turned into an independent food business advocacy group, and one that’s vowed to stay together even after the crisis abates.
“We felt like we would like to have a voice in the kind of things we need money for,” she said.
But, that might be leaving loyal customers, and ones who passionately support local businesses, wondering how they can help.
Doug Loon, president of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, said there are a couple of things people can do.
“We encourage citizens to consider their options,” Loon said.
Drive-throughs, pick-ups and deliveries are still allowed at many places, and so is the online purchase of gift cards, redeemable today or in the future.
“That puts important money into the business, so that they continue to pay the bills that will come due, whether they’re open for business or not,” he said.
He also suggested other industries employ those currently displaced.
“Some very capable workers are now going to be available in the workforce,” Loon said. “The question is, is there a place for them?”
Loon’s advice has been heeded by at least two Fargo-Moorhead employers already: grocery store chains Hornbacher’s and Cash Wise Foods, both of whom announced March 20 they’ll hire people who have temporarily lost their employment due to coronavirus-related closures.
There’s also a global “dining bond” initiative, which can be used to help support local businesses.
“Due to the impact that the coronavirus COVID-19 has had on the restaurant community, a collective of restaurant industry professionals have set a global initiative in motion to get funds into the hands of restaurants NOW, even if they are temporarily closed,” according to the site https://supportrestaurants.org/?mod=article_inline#about.
A dining bond works like a savings bond: purchase it now and redeem it for face value later.
Stories of unique displays of support have also begun to spread quickly. Justin LaRoque, co-owner of the Spud Jr. in East Grand Forks, made headlines by offering a free roll of toilet paper with take-out orders during the crisis. Social media has been flooded with posts, some offering potent reminders. “Remember all the businesses that you’ve asked for years and years to donate to your clubs, events, and organizations? [They’re] calling a favor. Answer the call,” read one meme which found its way on the popular Ladybosses of Fargo-Moorhead Facebook page.
Then there are the stories of extravagant tipping. Example: At Wurst Bier Hall, 3179 Bluestem Dr, West Fargo, General Manager Andrea Dickelman said a recent patron left a $350 tip on a $28 tab.
“He put on it, a little note, ‘appreciate you for all you do,’” Dickelman said.
His instructions went on to request it be dispersed among the entire staff, she said.
It was an act that temporarily eased the pervasive mood.
“I think what a lot of people are really afraid of right now is not just losing your job," she said, "it’s wondering if you have a job to come back to.”