Despite being a town of only 20,000 people, Northfield boasts a remarkable variety of locally-owned restaurants, cafés, and other eateries. And in the midst of this pandemic, it is exactly these businesses that help give Northfield its sense of community whose ongoing vitality is in jeopardy.
On March 16, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued Emergency Executive Order 20-04, mandating the temporary closure of bars, restaurants, and other public accommodations until March 27. On March 25, Walz extended the closure period to May 1 and issued a stay-at-home order until April 10 with Order 20-20, which has since been extended to May 4.
Businesses that offer food and beverage for off-site consumption have been permitted to stay open, as have laundry services, transportation, and other essential services. All other “non-essential” workers have been ordered to stay home for the time being. While restaurants can offer carry-out, delivery, and curbside-pickup options, patrons may not dine inside any establishment. To offer carry-out services, businesses may allow no more than five patrons inside their buildings at a time, and must ensure that those individuals remain at least six feet apart from one another.
Given these restrictions—on businesses and on the public—Northfield’s downtown businesses are working to adapt to the new normal. The Carletonian spoke with several local eateries about the effects of the pandemic on their business operations.
A changing business landscape
The Hideaway Coffeehouse and Wine Bar, offering a variety of salads, soups and sandwiches, is a family-owned café run by Joan and Jim Spaulding. In line with Walz’ orders, the Hideaway is no longer offering dine-in service, but is taking both curb-side and carry-out orders.
To keep the restaurant sanitary, employees have been washing hands frequently, said Joan Spaulding. They also wear single-use gloves during all interactions with customers: taking credit-cards, handling the touch screen used for transactions, and taking orders out to customers’ cars.
The Spauldings have six children, all of whom work at the Hideaway. The Spaulding family is keeping the business running, in part because none of them are being paid. “It’s all family now who’s working, which is not difficult because it’s not that busy.”
The Hideaway normally operates with a staff of 18 employees, all of whom are part-time. About half of the Hideaway’s staff are college students, according to Spaulding. As of now, all of the Hideaway’s paid staff have been laid off, said Spaulding.
“But they’re all continuing with their employee discount,” laughed Spaulding. “We’re hoping that when things are good, we can re-open again and they can all come back.”
On March 24, the Hideaway cut their hours down to 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. This marks a further reduction since March 17, when they reduced their hours from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“We’d been trying to do the hours so that people on the way home from work could grab something to take home,” said Spaulding of the 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. schedule. “But we just found that staying open those extra four hours—to make maybe 50 dollars—wasn’t worth it. We’re trying to keep all of us sane and healthy, too.”
Spaulding and her family are using some of their extra time to work on long-term projects at the Hideaway, she said. “We’re trying to take advantage of being closed. We’re working on the flooring, and doing some touch-up painting, some sprucing-up things. They’re things that have been on the back burner for the last couple years, and now we have the opportunity to do them, because nobody’s here!”
On the other end of Division Street is coffee shop Little Joy, still less than a year old, whose doors opened this past summer. Little Joy, much like its more-established counterparts, has closed its dine-in offerings. Customers can order coffee beans for free home delivery within Northfield, but the coffee shop is no longer offering carry-out orders.
Prior to the stay-at-home order, the coffee shop was taking swift steps to adapt to the changing conditions. Little Joy managers Tim Hollinger and Carrissa Glarner reduced the shop’s operating hours from 7 a.m. – 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. – 2 p.m. “We also rolled out an online ordering platform so you could pre-order coffee, and upped our sanitation and cleaning measures,” Hollinger noted.
Social distancing measures, coupled with Carleton and St. Olaf students’ departure, has resulted in a significant drop in sales—as much as 75%, said Hollinger. “Carleton students leaving was a hit, but I think our community has done a really good job of social distancing and self-isolating, which is a good thing. To see a loss in business because people are doing their part to flatten the curve is a weird, bittersweet feeling. We’re proud of them.”
“Before any executive orders came through, we were having conversations about closing,” Hollinger said. “Our obligation is to keep people healthy and to try and be mindful of the economy and our financial standing.”
“To see a loss in business because people are doing their part to flatten the curve is a weird, bittersweet feeling.”
After furloughing their staff, Hollinger and Glarner took themselves off the payroll on March 25 in preparation for the shop’s closure. “We had a lot of staff leaving anyway which made it a lot easier, but we had a couple staff members who said it would be easier to get on unemployment,” explained Glarner.
While Little Joy is not currently in full operation, Glarner is committed to maintaining the shop’s community. “Our atmosphere has moved to a new location—online—but we can go there too. We can still be engaging and connecting with our guests. That was the whole point of the coffee shop, to collectively enjoy the vibe,” she explained.
“We’re transitioning into using the space differently,” said Hollinger. “We will be inviting some musician friends of ours to use the space, and we’ll be recording 10-15 minute sessions of them playing in here to post online. Several of them are people who come here on a daily basis, and that maybe you’ve seen but didn’t know were musicians.”
“These are things that we’ve been trying to push out anyway. It’s always been part of our mission to highlight the community members and have them be part of our space,” Glarner added.
A few doors down from Little Joy, Mexican restaurant Kahlo is another relatively young business in Northfield, having opened in 2018. Typically serving lunch, dinner, and a Saturday brunch, Kahlo now offers only delivery and carry-out.
The restaurant has moved from their typical hours of 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. to a bifurcated schedule of 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m and 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. “We noticed that that was when most of our take-out orders would come in, and then after 1:30 we’d be completely dead,” said Maria Estrada, Kahlo owner. “Then it would pick up again in the evening.”
Kahlo has also stopped offering Saturday brunch, which had been from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. “There are a couple other restaurants offering breakfast, and they’re known for their breakfast,” said Estrada. “So I didn’t think it would be worth it for us to be open on Saturday.”
“We’re just trying to adapt and adjust,” said Estrada. “We’re trying to do as much as we can with the shorter hours. Just adapting one day at a time.”
Estrada also noted that the relative absence of college students has affected traffic. “We’re missing out on the college kids, especially Carleton,” said Estrada. “They’d come in groups of six, eight. We had our regulars, who we knew—and now they’re gone!”
Kahlo’s catering offerings have taken the biggest hit from the pandemic, as large gatherings are being cancelled. Most of Kahlo’s staff has remained employed, but Estrada laid off one employee who had worked for catering. The restaurant had received deposits from an April event and a May wedding, both of which Estrada has had to return. “There are no more jobs coming in,” said Estrada. “I’d had a gala of 300 people lined up for next month, they just canceled. I had another cancellation for 200 people that was supposed to take place this month.”
Kahlo also had a contract catering lunches for Arcadia Charter School, which is now closed. “We lost a lot of money on that catering job, which is usually every week. So at this point, we lost $9,000 on school lunches alone. And I don’t even want to say how much we’ve lost on dining-in. It was a big percentage of our earnings.”
“So we are stressed out,” continued Estrada. “But we’re doing our best, and we’re hoping to survive this crisis.”
“I don’t even want to say how much we’ve lost on dining-in.”
Across the street from Kahlo is Goodbye Blue Monday Coffeehouse, a mainstay of downtown Northfield. Usually known for its humming atmosphere, the coffee shop is now taking carry-out orders only.
“Being in a business without people in it, sitting and having conversation, is really different,” said Dan Riggins, owner of Blue Monday.
Blue Monday is likely helped by the fact that a large portion of its customers — pandemic or not — purchase drinks to-go. “There’s that to-go portion built into our business,” noted Riggins.
Blue Monday has reduced its hours, closing at 6 p.m. instead of their usual 8 p.m., a smaller reduction than many of their counterparts. Still, “the demand’s just not there,” said Riggins of those last evening hours.
Blue Monday has not had to significantly reduce their staff. “Luckily, we have quite a bit of flexibility,” said Riggins. “People have reduced hours, but we’ve been working with people personally. We’re trying to give people what they can get by on.”
As to whether Blue Monday has seen a drop in sales, Riggins replied: “Absolutely.”
“I’ve been in business 26 years,” said Riggins, “and I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“But we’re a business, and we have to stay in business,” continued Riggins. “If we close our doors, bills keep coming. The money that comes in is the money that goes out.”
“Come on down,” said Riggins. “It’s business as usual. If you need to hear a human voice that isn’t bummed out, come on down. Life goes on, here at Blue Monday. We’ve got the music playing. Come down, get a cup of normalcy.”
“This is true of all local businesses,” said Riggins. “If you care about wherever you are, and you like the diversity of what’s offered there—those businesses are there because they’re being supported. If people want those businesses to be functional again after this is over, they need to be supported.”
How badly are businesses hurt?
The Hideaway, which opened in 2006, is among Northfield’s longer-running eateries. But their fourteen-year history doesn’t provide much extra financial security in a time like this, said Spaulding. “There’s not a big profit margin in the restaurant industry,” she said. “Nobody gets rich doing restaurants. You do it because you love the business, you love the customers. Even a week with no business is a huge hit.”
“We still have our monthly bills we have to make,” Spaulding continued. “We’ve got the building, and supplies, and electricity. An advantage we have is that right now, we can stay open without paying labor, because we’re family. If we had to be paying staff right now, we would not be able to stay open.”
“Nobody gets rich doing restaurants. You do it because you love the business, you love the customers.”
As for Blue Monday, Riggins does not know exactly how long the coffee shop can be sustained financially. “If this goes on two more months, what would happen? I don’t know,” said Riggins. “I don’t think anybody does. This is uncharted territory.”
Riggins noted that Blue Monday is helped by its deep roots in Northfield. “We’re a well-established business, with multi-generational customers. We’re kind of a fixture in town. That definitely helps, there’s no doubt about that. So we just keep keeping on, and we’re able to be here in the capacity we are right now. We go day to day.”
“The uncertainty of it all makes it hard to project,” said Estrada of Kahlo. “There have been days when we’ve been really busy, and I’ve thought, ‘Yes, we’re going to make it, we’re going to be okay.’ And then there have been days that are really slow. So at this point, we’re kind of taking it one day at a time. We don’t know what next week will bring.”
Little Joy, among Northfield’s youngest businesses, remains optimistic. “Our owner seems pretty confident that we can get through this despite the natural worry and all the unknowns,” said Glarner.
“I would be surprised if this was enough to shut us down,” added Hollinger. “Money might be tight, but we’re still going to be doing our thing.”
Some Northfield businesses have taken advantage of GoFundMe’s Small Business Relief Initiative, which GoFundMe.org, the platform’s charitable arm, has launched in collaboration with Yelp, Intuit QuickBooks, GoDaddy, and Bill.com. Each of these businesses has donated to the fund, which will issue $500 matching grants to “provide small business owners with the financial support and resources needed to continue running their businesses during and after the coronavirus crisis.”
To be considered for the matching grant, businesses must raise at least $500 on GoFundMe, and meet the following requirements: have been “negatively impacted by a government mandate due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” be independently owned and operated, not be “nationally dominant” in its field, intend to use funds to either help care for its employees or pay business expenses, and have no fraud reports against it.
As of now, four Northfield businesses are running GoFundMe fundraisers: Hogan Brothers, Smoqehouse, Fielder’s Choice, and El Triunfo. None of these fundraisers are close to the $500 mark, but El Triunfo is closest, having raised $270.
“Money might be tight, but we’re still going to be doing our thing.”
For customers interested in supporting Northfield’s eateries, Spaulding noted the importance of gift cards. When a customer purchases a gift card, the business receives the money now for goods it won’t actually sell until later. That way, they function as a sort of “advance” income.
“Everybody’s gotta do what they should be doing—keeping their social distance, and also keeping a good attitude through this whole thing. I believe that a lot of this is going to be a mental game. We need to keep in a good headspace—that would be my motherly advice,” laughed Spaulding.
Estrada noted the support she’s received from Kahlo customers. “They’ve been so great. I’m very appreciative. They don’t only go out of their way to place an order, they’re also being generous with their tips.”
“But I think there’s only so much the community can do,” said Estrada. “I understand that some of them are losing their jobs.”
“At this point, living within your means is the best thing you can do for us,” said Hollinger of Little Joy. “If it’s within your means to buy a bag of coffee beans for your house, awesome. Do it. But the best thing people can do for us is be good to themselves.”
“People are definitely doing as much as they can to support the business,” said Glarner. “As much as we appreciate you coming in right now, take care of yourself too, because we want to see you in 6 months.”