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Take a seat outside

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Sauk Rapids community, administration prepare for phased opening

By Anna Hinkemeyer
Staff writer

SAUK RAPIDS – Bars and restaurants within the Sauk Rapids community were abruptly shut down at 5 p.m. March 17. Some shut their doors completely while others have attempted take-out and delivery options.
    When Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz released the first phase of reopening for bars and restaurants May 20, what came was unexpected.
    “I wasn’t expecting it to be just patio seating,” said Sarah Apple, manager of Rock Creek Coffeehouse. “We had already been talking about having 25% capacity inside.”
    Rock Creek, along with Old Capital Tavern and others in the community, are now trying to prepare outdoor seating for 50 people or less beginning June 1. Matt Buhs, co-owner of Rock Creek, will ask neighboring businesses for permission to expand with tables in front of their storefronts. Old Capital Tavern will utilize public parking spaces along Division Street adjacent to the business.
    As part of the emergency executive order, Old Capital Tavern will take call-in reservations but not invest in an online system. Aaron Salzer, owner of Old Capital Tavern, said resources are already tight and investing in outdoor seating will be difficult as is.
    “Gov. Walz is mandating how I operate my business,” Salzer said. “We have been closed for two months, and now he is telling us we can only do outdoor patio seating. We have to invest more money we don’t have into more patio furniture and canopies. Numerous bars and restaurants in the state don’t even have the capability to put outdoor dining in place. When we were shut down, we went from a full-service restaurant to basically a glorified McDonald’s. Now we are going to have to operate in an environment that doesn’t make any sense.”
    The Sauk Rapids City Council passed an ordinance at its May 26 meeting to allow restaurants and bars to expand into sidewalks, parking lots and public parking spaces. The Sauk Rapids Housing and Redevelopment Authority is also working on potential programs to assist businesses financially.
    Sauk Rapids Community Development Director Todd Schultz said allowing expansion felt like the first place for the city to start, something he said was in the works prior to Walz’s announcement. Schultz said parking at many establishments is based on building capacity. When businesses are not allowed to seat more than 50 customers outdoors, expansion into parking lots and sidewalks is easier.
    As part of the ordinance, businesses are required to submit a drawing to the city so it can be approved by the police, public works and building code departments as well as the fire marshal. The process becomes administrative in nature, not requiring any additional permits, Schultz said.
    “We know a number of our businesses have been struggling, especially the ones that haven’t been able to be open because of the governor’s orders,” Schultz said. “As they start to come out of this, we want to think about ways we can help some of those businesses and give them a little bit of a head start.”
    While Salzer looks forward to welcoming returning customers, he said operating at a capacity of 50 people could be detrimental to his business which is already in a dire situation. Salzer closed Cabin Fever in Little Falls permanently. Salzer bought Cabin Fever two years ago and has been vulnerable to ups and downs within the first years of business. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced bars and restaurants to close for over two months, the restaurant could not survive.
    Salzer said if he is not open at full capacity June 1, Old Capital Tavern has approximately a 30% survival rate.
    “It is going to cost us more to run our restaurant for 50 people than it costs to run our restaurant normally,” Salzer said. “Making money is not going to happen. We are going to do everything we can to make it and do it right, but unless bars and restaurants are open without restrictions, most of them won’t make it. Honestly, we all need it. My employees need a job and need income. We need help, or we won’t be here.”
    Rock Creek Coffeehouse has not seen the same hit as the sit-down bar and restaurant, partly because of the community’s use of its drive-thru. The coffee, pastry, sandwich and ice cream venue has taken a 20% loss in revenue, and the staff is eager to take walk-in orders June 1 with seating options available outdoors.
    Mary Kay Buhs, co-owner of the coffeehouse, said they have had requests to walk in and order food to-go since the mandated closure. The doors to the coffeehouse have been locked, but people walking or biking will come through the drive-thru and sit on the tables in front of the business.
    “I think a lot of our regulars come through the drive-thru, but you just don’t have that one-on-one connection with everyone that comes in,” Apple said. “I think that’s the heart of any business, just customer service and knowing your people. We are excited to welcome everyone back as soon as we can.”  
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