The Brass Lantern has been in Mike Sieve's family for nearly 40 years. The cozy restaurant inside of the Viking Plaza Mall is one of many area businesses feeling the hit from the spread of the COVID-19 virus and the Minnesota shut down. However, Sieve is ready to open his doors now. He's just waiting for the call.
When Gov. Tim Walz ordered the state shutdown in March, Sieve had no choice but to close his doors. After a few weeks of no business, Sieve decided to stand up and write an open letter to Walz asking for the state to allow restaurants to reopen with social distance guidelines.
On May 4, Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen and Senate Republicans shared ideas with Walz in the hope of allowing restaurants to reopen following the May 18 shutdown date. His release included an open letter from Sieve talking about the struggles of Alexandria businesses.
"I think we are at the point where there isn't a one-size-fits-all phrase; it's become a one-size-hurts-all," Sieve said. "This isn't about people going at this helter-skelter, but instead seeking the advice from peers and medical professionals about opening safely. Take all the guidance you can get, as long as that group is invested in the safety aspect. We are set up, and we were set up three weeks ago."
The Brass Lantern usually seats around 140 customers at one time. Sieve went through the process of shifting the layout of his restaurant to fit social distancing rules. Even though The Brass Lantern would seat around 80 people following the social distance guidelines, it's better than not being open at all.
"We've taken certain tables out of the equation to fit that 6-foot distance requirement," Sieve said. "We plan not to exceed six people at a table. If you were to come in with a family of eight people, you would have to be split up at different tables. We would also make sure customers only see one waiter to limit contact with staff."
Before the shutdown, Alexandria restaurants anticipated the closings. That's when Kent Kopp, owner of Pike and Pint Grill, got ahead of the curve.
After a meeting with restaurant owners and medical advisors, Kopp started an email chain where area restaurants can share ideas with one and other in the hopes of coming back strong. While in business, these owners are competitors fighting for dollars. They are now on the same team.
"We were familiar with a couple of places before the shutdown, but now I've met so many great people. I consider the people I've met in this time friends," Kopp said. "The restaurant scene is competitive, but I think we all have a lot at stake right now. When restaurants are open, this community grows. People need stuff to do so this community can thrive."
The Pike and Pint Grill is one of the eateries that has offered curbside service the last few weeks. Kopp is surprised at how many people are still eating locally despite not being able to dine in.
"When we shut our doors, I initially thought that we would have 20% of our usual business," Kopp said. "Right now, we've been getting about 50%, which is incredible. I think that's a testament to how great this community is. Whether it's people missing the food or wanting to support locally, we are so grateful. We've had people buying gift cards and holding onto them for when we reopen."
Kopp's email chain was one of the inspirations for Sieve's letter to Walz. Ingebrigtsen shared the letter on his Facebook page to an overwhelmingly positive response. After hundreds of likes and shares, Sieve feels he’s making a difference.
"The feedback was outstanding," Sieve said. "I believe it's because we are all social people, and we need social things to do. If we can do it safely, I don't see why we can't be open. There are around 75,000 people in this area, and there aren't that many cases. I think it should be up to the restaurants to decide whether they want to open safely."
Big box stores haven't closed, and small business owners are wondering why they aren't deemed essential.
"We understand why places like that aren't closed," Kopp said. "If you go into those stores, there isn't social distancing. We know we can provide that."
What Sieve misses the most about going to work is being with his staff and serving his regulars.
"I will always hold my family first, but my staff means the world to me," he said. "I know they are being compensated through unemployment, but they want to come back to work. If you go out around lunch or dinner to a drive-through, you'll wait for up to an hour to get your food. Some of these places are making a killing right now. At some point, people want to stop going through drive-throughs and come in for a great home-cooked meal."
While the future is uncertain for local restaurants, Kopp believes that his customers will come back ready to eat.
"We don't know what regulations are going to be put on capacity or distancing when we are allowed to reopen, but we will deal with that when it comes," Kopp said. "What I do know is the strength in this community for local support. Even if people don't have the money, they will go the extra mile to support us. I love this community, and we hope to see them here soon."