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Minnesota restaurants prepare for winter as the pandemic drags on

Britta Greene Oct 22, 2021
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Christina Nguyen, chef and owner of the Minneapolis restaurants Hai Hai and Hola Arepa, stands in an expansion of Hai Hai’s patio space, constructed to accommodate more outdoor diners during the warmer months. Britta Greene

Minnesota restaurants prepare for winter as the pandemic drags on

Britta Greene Oct 22, 2021
Heard on:
Christina Nguyen, chef and owner of the Minneapolis restaurants Hai Hai and Hola Arepa, stands in an expansion of Hai Hai’s patio space, constructed to accommodate more outdoor diners during the warmer months. Britta Greene
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One of the oldest buildings in St. Paul, Minnesota, is home to Waldmann, a German-style restaurant and brewery. Walk onto the patio and it’s easy to miss what looks like a simple set of light switches mounted on the wall.

The switches toggle powerful heaters that line the exterior of the space. Turn them on, and within about five minutes you’ll start to feel the warmth on your clothing and exposed skin.

Waldmann’s owner, Tom Schroeder, said he spent just over $60,000 on this equipment in 2020 — an investment he saw as being well worth it last winter. Schroeder expects it will be worth it this winter, too. 

“The beer garden was packed, if you could imagine, last New Year’s Eve,” he said. “We had soup boiling on a trivet over the center fire pit. All the heaters were on.”

According to a recent survey by Hospitality Minnesota, a group representing the hospitality industry in the state, nearly two-thirds of restaurants have taken on debt since the start of the pandemic, with the average amount being about $500,000.

The summer months were a boost for many venues with patios or outdoor seating. But COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations remain high here heading into the colder months, leading to uncertainty among both restaurant owners and patrons.

“I would be lying if I said that I was looking forward to fall and winter coming,” said Christina Nguyen, chef and co-owner of Minneapolis restaurants Hai Hai and Hola Arepa. “As the patios close, we’re definitely going to be feeling it.”

Nguyen estimates she spent a couple of thousand dollars to put up a tent and some decorations for a temporary expansion to the existing large patio space at Hai Hai this summer. Still, she plans to move everything indoors once temperatures dip into the 20s and 30s.

She said it’s hard to believe this winter could be as bad as last, before vaccinations were available. With vaccines, more people feel comfortable eating indoors. Still, restaurants in Minnesota are not required to ask patrons for proof of vaccination for indoor dining, which has many patrons sticking with outdoor dining as long as possible.  

That’s true for Zack Eichten, who met friends outdoors at Saint Paul Brewing on a recent October day. He said he preferred restaurants to have vaccine mandates for indoor dining. Otherwise, he’s happy to seek out a patio.

Temperatures were in the 50s with a cool breeze, but the patio was busy. “Here in Minnesota, you acclimate to the cold,” said patron Chelsea Fey. Being outdoors in winter is just part of the fun, she said. 

The bar inside was also busy. Catering to both crowds, the brewery plans to heat the outdoor space this year once temperatures dip a bit further. The propane for the heaters alone will cost about $500 a week, said Tony Perella, director of operations.

Chef Yia Vang plans to move his pop-up restaurant Union Hmong Kitchen into Graze Provisions + Libations, a Minneapolis food hall.
Chef Yia Vang plans to move his pop-up restaurant Union Hmong Kitchen into Graze Provisions + Libations, a Minneapolis food hall, before the winter season. The food hall offers heated outdoor space for patrons. The pandemic has also influenced plans for his new restaurant project, Vinai. (Britta Greene)

For those planning new restaurants, these kinds of outdoor costs are just part of the business model. When he first started putting together designs for his new Minneapolis space, Vinai, Chef Yia Vang said the patio was an afterthought.

“Now it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, the outdoor seating aspect of it has to be as big, if not one of the bigger draws,’” he said. 

In Vang’s experience, customers are roughly split in terms of their comfort eating indoors. The best business practice, he said, is to have options for all. 

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