The Hippen family walked in Pedro’s Grill and Cantina Monday, Jan. 11, in Cloquet to do something no one in Minnesota had done in more than seven weeks — sit down and eat.
Marcia Hippen and her two daughters, Mollie and Annie, were on their way back to their Chanhassen, Minnesota, home after a few days at a cabin near Lutsen and decided to stop for lunch at Pedro’s.
The trio followed the host to their booth and settled in as they waited for their chips and drinks. They marveled at the novelty of an experience that has been increasingly rare in Minnesota over the past year.
“We just wanted to be part of the debut of the opening of restaurants,” Marcia said.
Restaurants around Carlton County and the state reopened to indoor, dine-in service after a break of more than six weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the nation. The industry endured a more than two-month shutdown earlier in the year as state officials tried to get a grip on the spread of the coronavirus.
By noon, approximately eight tables in the restaurant were full. Under Gov. Tim Walz’s relaxed restrictions, restaurants are limited to 50% capacity.
Still, 50% capacity is barely enough to “pay the bills” according to owner Erika Aranda. Pedro’s started a delivery service during the pause and Aranda estimated that operating at half its capacity is about equal to what they were making on the delivery service.
Across town at Carmen’s Bar & Restaurant, a small group of people sat at the bar while others ate in the dining room. Owner Ryan Lindstrom said it was helpful that Walz gave the go-ahead to bar seating in the initial reopening, and the restaurant had a “good little lunch crowd.”
Carmen’s also featured a tent covering much of its deck. Lindstrom said they purchased the tent to expand seating over the summer and when Walz allowed some outdoor dining in December they set it up again.
Carmen’s goes through about 10 tanks of propane every two days, but as long as the temperature is above 20 degrees the space usually does pretty well, Lindstrom said.
Aranda and Lindstrom have each tried different methods to adapt to the concerns of coronavirus throughout the year.
While Carmen’s was expanding its outdoor seating last summer, Aranda built a patio on the sidewalk that became a destination for people looking to eat at a restaurant, but not indoors. Pedro’s location on Cloquet Avenue wouldn't allow Aranda to erect a tent during the colder months, though she did have an ice bar built for customers to have a drink at while they are waiting on their orders.
The Jack in Cloquet and the Streetcar Pub & Kitchen in Carlton each had small lunch crowds. Streetcar owner Teresa Kavanaugh said things slowed down a little earlier than she anticipated, but they’ve seen strong curbside service and have established a weekly catering deal with Volunteer Services of Carlton County.
Lindstrom said he was more optimistic about 2021 as COVID-19 vaccines slowly make their way to more and more people, but he knows things can change quickly during the pandemic.
“You just have to hope and plan for the best, and if it doesn’t go that way, you just have to keep adapting,” Lindstrom said.
Lindstrom, Aranda and Kavanaugh all thanked the community for tremendous support during the shutdowns and looked ahead to bringing more and more people into their establishments.
“We’re just looking forward every day to when we can open at full capacity,” Kavanaugh said.