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Throwing in the Towel: Restaurant Closings



Amalia Obermeier-Smith was brought on as the new chef of Fig + Farro when they reopened in May for takeout. But even the clever takeout window on the street that fixed the issue of the main doors to the restaurant inside Calhoun Square being locked to foot traffic, didn’t bring in enough sales to make staying open viable.

After initially closing in March, along with other restaurants not equipped to do takeout, Michelle Courtright was excited to reopen her Fig + Farro plant-based restaurant in Minneapolis’ Calhoun Square on May 6. She was prepping for the early June date she believed restaurant dining rooms would reopen to welcome back a limited number of guests.

She had spent the time her restaurant was furloughed coming up with new menus, rewriting “our business plan about a thousand times” and researching what other countries are doing with plant-based foods.

She hired a new chef and GM after her original team decided to stay home with their young children and collect unemployment. To facilitate takeout, Courtright invested in a curbside pick-up window, a staffed “booth” situated on Lake Street that allowed staff to run food from the kitchen to the sidewalk since the main door to the mall entrance was locked to the public. Designed by Doomtree and Street Factory Media, the booth had a fun vibe including street decals that spaced people six feet apart, using song lyrics like “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” and “You’re So Far Away.”

The menu was redesigned for takeout, since “takeout isn’t pretty,” Courtright said, laughing. She was on a roll toward her mission to reduce their carbon “foodprint.”

The concept had already gone through a couple of tweakings and retweakings, before it was named one of the “Top 50 Vegetarian Restaurants in America” by Forbes Magazine in 2019, and was on its way to reversing the trend of the original Figlio restaurant space some thought was cursed for its rapid turnover of concepts. 

When I talked to her on the phone, she was energized and ready to tackle what was hoped to be a post-pandemic world. And then the Governor announced that restaurants were not reopening on June 1, but instead social distancing on patios was the next phase. Exactly when guests could return to restaurants would be determined by the containment of the virus spreading with this gradual reopening of public areas.

Memorial weekend Courtright’s publicist sent out the message: “It’s with deep sadness that we are announcing we’ll be closing our restaurant permanently. With uncertainty of when we can reopen our dining room safely, we have decided to turn our mission of food and climate into a foundation. More to come on this in the coming weeks...”

Unfortunately, Fig + Farrow isn’t the only high-profile restaurant to close permanently in this pandemic. 

Michelle Courtright, owner of Fig + Farrow may be closing the restaurant, but as an advocate of plant-based foods and reducing our carbon footprints, she is pivoting to something new she’ll be unveiling in the near future.

Bachelor Farmer, a mainstay in the North Loop, was one of the first to announce the restaurant, along with its downstairs award-winning Marvel Bar, and coffee shop, was permanently closing. Owned by brothers, Andrew and Eric Dayton, the restaurant may have been lauded, but the margins were too narrow. 

After 21 years in downtown St. Paul, Pazzaluna also announced it wasn’t coming back, as did all five Bonfires and the almost three-decade old North Loop mainstay Moose & Sadies. Parasole’s Burger Jones will no longer be flipping burgers, nor will Four Bells being opening up its rooftop in Loring Park.  Upscale chain, McCormick & Schmicks, on Nicollet Mall also closed.

And this is just a partial list and the beginning of a much longer list.

If restaurants owned by successful companies, such as Parasole and Morrissey Hospitality were tossing in the towel, what can smaller operators expect? For years industry-watchers have predicted the restaurant industry was overbuilt and that with labor costs coupled with the difficulty in finding good help, it was due for some closures. So some of the victims of the pandemic may actually have happened even without the forced closures. 

The pandemic has been an arduous foe. It’s not just taking a toll on the economics of businesses, but on life as well. And that balance is what is causing so much angst. Restaurant operators have to weigh the cost of doing business with the safety of their employees and guests. And while it’s logical to think that by donning masks and seating guests six feet apart you’ll be able to return to some semblance of normality, it may be a long road. In essence, how long can restaurants survive on 25 or 50 percent of their previous guest counts?

And yet, when other states have opened their dining rooms, guests have flocked back. The co-founder of Bario Queen, Steven Rosenfield, who participated in a webinar hosted by Foodservice News in May, said that when Arizona opened, guests weren’t concerned with masks or reading the long list of things the restaurant had done to ensure their safety. Employees, also, weren’t worried about their safety, he said, adding the caveat that this is the first wave of returning guests—the younger, less vulnerable group. The more cautious diners will wait, he added. 

One of his employees is the designated restroom attendant. “My least happiest employee,” he quipped. The attendant opens the door for guests and then equipped with a sanitation cart, goes in to clean the restroom after each guest.

There is no shortage of advice out there on how to reopen restaurants when the time comes. This issue is filled with advice from experts, as well as restaurateurs in the trenches trying to figure it out as they go. 

But as we were finding out before the pandemic hit, the hospitality industry needed to make some changes in order to stay viable. Perhaps now all that creativity can begin to come up with new ways to do—and stay–in business. 

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