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Waiting Tables: Minnesota Restaurant Owners Fighting To Survive Pandemic

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- WCCO is checking back in with three Twin Cities restaurants, fighting to survive, in our series "Waiting Tables." A lot can change in two weeks - for better or for worse.

Two weeks ago, Leo's Malt Shop and Grill in Stillwater had just gotten a new paint job and some takeout items.

But now, Cory Buettner, owner of the restaurant, says his staff is learning day by day how to make fried and frozen food more mobile.  And just in time; he says sales are still at about 50%.

He still has hope, though. "We've definitely seen people come out of the woodwork and say and get some fresh air and they've been coming down to the restaurant and driving up and getting curb service too," he said.

He's adjusting to the present and preparing for the future. "We are getting ready to have our patio, we are prepping for that, kinda trying to get our new models set up, our sight plan, where we are going to have seats, chairs and tables put together," he said.

Buettner said he will be prepared when service resumes. Some of his staff members who were scared to work have decided to come back. And he now has more money to pay them; he got his small business government loan. "It's going to get us through this hard time and help us re-invest and re-boot the concept for the future," he said.

The owner of PinKu, in Northeast Minneapolis, got his PPP too, but it's a bit complicated with only an 8 week window to spend the whole sum.  Xiaoteng Huang said, "we are not working at the same capacity as before so we don't want to pay people to come here and stand, we want to use our money appropriately."

The restaurant, which had a small dining room, took less of a hit because of they could facilitate takeout easily, but they are still operating at 60% of typical business. "The first two weeks of the shutdown, everyone wanted to support our business so we got a lot of people the last week we have seen our business slow down a little bit."

But he's still hiring and paying $15 an hour and hoping that soon he'll be even busier. The dining room is reconfigured so that tables will be six feet apart.  Huang says he'll open his dining room the minute he can. Until then, he said, "I just think we have to be calm, optimistic."

And calm is what the owner of six Red Rabbit and Red Cow restaurants is looking for as he spends some time in Colorado. "Its super stressful from trying to bring employees back to the PPP loan," he said.

He says he's grateful for the loan, but again – it's complicated.  Owner Luke Shimps said, "It really doesn't work for restaurants because what happens when 8 weeks are up and you burn through all the PPP money but if sales aren't where they are we'll just have to furlough them again, and that doesn't seem correct."

The good news, he says, is what was a 95% dine-in operation is now picking up steam in the take-out realm; he's seen an increase in orders over the last two weeks.  As for re-opening and re-configuring the dining room which is full of booths, " We will have to do some more modeling and see if it makes sense. Or, does it make more sense to operate in a takeout mode until there is more of a sense of normalcy for society," he said.

Whenever he does reopen the dining room, he said they may continue to have online ordering and minimal contact with servers as they try and maximize their future.

Shimp said, "We have a lot invested in our six locations so it's not like we can just give up.  We have to figure it out and trudge forward."

The restaurant owners say it's also tricky as they rehire staff, because it's hard to compete with unemployment benefits.

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