The public health emergency across the nation has hit businesses hard, especially restaurants.

As seating capacities have been limited for safety reasons, restaurants have struggled to make ends meet. This has led to a new movement headed by both the city of White Bear Lake and the White Bear Lake Economic Development Corporation (WBL EDC).

“There was a general concern about the future of the restaurants in White Bear Lake,” said Reed Vanderzee, president of the WBL EDC. “When they reopened, they had to adhere to strict rules and regulations. We formed a committee to say, ‘Okay, what can we do to help restaurants amid the pandemic?’”

The group reached out to city officials and asked for support in keeping restaurants open through the winter when they expect to be facing the most challenges.

“We have a responsibility to advise the city to find support economically,” Vanderzee said.

The city gave grant money to help the ReGrow committee with its work and has been supportive of the group’s efforts. The committee began its work by sending a survey to White Bear Lake residents about their restaurant habits.

“We surveyed the community, and I asked them questions like, ‘What is your dining like now? What is your plan in the wintertime?’ The survey got almost 700 responses,” Vanderzee said.

The survey found, not surprisingly, that the number one reason for not eating out is fear of COVID-19. One question asked respondents whether they would want to spend more money at their favorite restaurant if they knew its business was suffering. The answer was a resounding yes.

This led the committee to want to help instill a sense of safety and responsibility in restaurants and the community.

Committee members created a pledge for restaurants to make to help community members feel safe. It included language stating that the restaurant was complying with state-set standards for operation amid the pandemic. So far, 51 White Bear Lake restaurants have taken the pledge.

“We take our craft very seriously and have always considered ourselves very lucky to be able to showcase our passion for food, beverage and service in a clean, safe environment,” said Daron Close, an owner of Acqua and MIZU and manager of Cabin 61 and Admiral D’s. “Now, more than ever, the safety of our guests and our staff is our top priority.” 

Bill Foussard, owner of Rudy’s Redeye Grill and White Bear Country Inn, echoed those thoughts. 

“We are working hard training our team members on all required and suggested guidelines by the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health,” said Foussard. “We believe in following the protocols, which will keep our guests and team members safe and keep our team members employed. We stress to our guests and team members to do what is right to allow us to continue operating. If we’re shut down, we’re putting a lot of wonderful people out of work.”

The committee is also promoting local restaurants and assisting them with making changes. They are working to help restaurants improve their takeout and delivery systems and are putting takeout-only parking spaces in White Bear Lake to ensure people are able to get in and get out in a timely fashion.

“The committee and the city have been a huge help and shoulder to lean on. I don’t feel as if I have to navigate this all on my own. I have a family that will listen, understand and help me figure it all out,” said Celine Carlson, owner of Keys Café.

The committee is submitting profiles on many restaurants to the local newspaper as well as posting about them online.

“We have already seen the effects of this committee,” said Dan Brown, general manager of Brickhouse. “We have people coming in or calling who have seen the articles and want to help support Brickhouse through these winter months.” 

The committee also has held some photo sessions to show unity among restaurant owners and rallies to get people excited and empower them to forge onward.

“Most importantly, they are communicating the fact that all of these food establishments are doing everything we can to provide a safe, sanitary and still enjoyable experience,” Brown said.

All restaurant owners interviewed agreed that this committee is doing important work for them.

“The White Bear Lake dining scene is such a diverse and strong asset to our community,” said Close. “This group has been able to give us a great amount of support and confidence to continue to grow during uncertain times. Through our discussions, we can all save time by not making individual mistakes or missteps that can cost us time and money, both of which are very limited for us all right now.” 

“Some of us could easily slip through the cracks and give up or not be able to handle it on our own,” Carlson said.

 

A flashback to March

Back in March, community members were unable to open their businesses amid the lockdown, and many businesses suffered as a result.

“It’s been very challenging,” said Rudy’s Redeye Grill’s Foussard. “On March 20, 2020, we laid off 130 associates. We were down to about 12 team members to operate both Rudy’s and White Bear Country Inn. We communicated by email each week to all team members and we had an incredible group that worked handling whatever job needed to be accomplished.” 

Since then Rudy’s Redeye Grill and Rooftop has installed a UV blue light LED filtration system for all public areas in Rudy’s and the White Bear Country Inn. This system was first installed in the kitchen to keep the cooks safe as they work side-by-side on the hot line. 

“As we researched and learned more, we installed it in Rudy’s Redeye Grill, the event center, lobby, offices, pool, atrium area, as well as both kitchens,” Foussard said.

Since the pandemic began, most banquets, meetings and weddings have canceled except small trainings or meetings of up to 20 people. 

“When everything was shut down, Rudy’s provided room service, curbside pickup and delivery. We’ve been fortunate with Rudy’s Rooftop being outdoors, and the weather has been good for outdoor dining. Rudy’s Rooftop is now closed due to winter being just around the corner,” Foussard said.

In compliance with mandates, 100 seats have been removed from Rudy’s Redeye Grill, which has proved to be challenging. Foussard said the restaurant has been fortunate to have the sales they’ve had.

Others described the pandemic as a rollercoaster for their business.

“It’s honestly much different today than it was in March,” said Carlson of Keys Café. “The first couple of months were all about keeping busy (with no business) all alone (no employees). I’m grateful to the city to have had a patio and that the state opened us up 50% on the inside.” 

She noted that one of the biggest hurdles for her business has been battling the unknown.

“Will the news tell everyone to stay home, or the government shut us down? Will I or a staff member get COVID, shutting us down for a week or two? I’ve never lived under the conditions where I have absolutely no control over my business,” Carlson said.

Despite admitting it is a hard time for everyone, other restaurant owners said they were lucky in the accommodations they were able to provide for guests.

“Since COVID hit, Brickhouse has performed very well,” Brown said. “The start was rough with only being able to provide takeout, but with the support of the community we were able to persevere. Once restaurants were allowed to open back up in June, we had a great outdoor dining season.”

Close echoed these thoughts. “We consider ourselves very fortunate and are really doing well. This was without a doubt (some) of the most beautiful summer weather we have seen in years. Outdoor dining was in extreme demand, and we are quite lucky that all of our locations have spacious patios allowing safe social distancing.”

Both Close’s restaurants and Brickhouse struggled at the beginning of March as many others did.

“We had to find ways to remain profitable and maintain a safe environment while also employing and motivating our team who all could have made more money not working on unemployment,” Close said.

He noted that his restaurants shifted to curbside pickup the day after everything closed.

“We added hard-to-find grocery and convenience items to help our guests limit their visits to the store and have access to staples. We changed our hours and the menus at all locations, adding additional pickup options. We added delivery services, set up online ordering for curbside pickup, changed reservation platforms, modified staffing, added many new cleaning systems and employee health screenings,” Close said.

 

Winter is coming

Despite the advantages many restaurants found when the city allowed outdoor seating in the streets, restaurants are bracing for a long winter.

“All we ask is that you put your faith in us as much as you feel comfortable. That might be dining in, ordering curbside pickup, giving holiday gift cards, helping us with online reviews or just calling or emailing to say hi,” Close said.

Restaurant owners are asking community members to continue to support them throughout this tough season through takeout, curbside, delivery, in-person dining — whatever they can do to help.

“This is important, because we have already seen so many businesses close due to this pandemic; without the support from our community, we would see many more shutting down,” Brown said.

They are also grateful for the committee’s support.

“The effort by this committee, led by Reed Vanderzee, is incredible,” said Foussard. “It’s providing a unified effort by many of our White Bear restaurants and bars to work together and share the message that we are all following CDC guidelines regarding distancing, wearing masks, washing our hands, using sanitizer, as well as training our associates on COVID-19 safety procedures. As a unified voice, we’re able to share the message with our local residents that we are safe, and (that) we are following procedures to help them feel comfortable coming into our restaurants and bars.” 

“They have been a huge help in bringing the White Bear Lake restaurant community together. It has been such a relief to have open discussions with our local restaurant owners and managers,” Close said.

Restaurants are banding together to demonstrate their safety and responsibility amid the pandemic. Now they are asking the community to support them and their efforts to keep everyone they serve and employ safe.

“They simply must continue to support all the businesses in whatever way they are most comfortable,” Carlson said.

For more information on the ReGrow committee’s work, the pledge and much more, visit the ReGrow’s website at https://regrow-wbl.com/. 

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