Backroads Steakhouse, a bar-restaurant in Evansville, has been reported to the Douglas County Sheriff's Office at least six times in the last month, owner Mahrie Ohren said. In addition to the six calls from the sheriff’s office and Horizon Public Health, Ohren said more people contacted the city of Evansville with their concerns.
Callers thought the restaurant was open and serving people inside because the lights were on and the parking lot had one too many cars in it.
“My response? ‘Come on in!’ as we had nothing to hide,” Ohren wrote on Facebook.
Turns out, the staff members were following Gov. Tim Walz’s most recent pause order, they were just extremely busy handling takeout orders.
“We’re scrambling just to simply keep our heads above water right now,” Ohren said. “The fact that people just assumed that we were defying the mandate and then continued to call us in was my frustration at Backroads.”
One Thursday night, the crew of eight staff scrambled to fulfill more than 125 burger and shake specials, which caused them to go through 19 gallons of ice cream. But the next day at lunchtime, Ohren said they didn’t sell a single takeout order, and on a good day, they might sell 10.
“We’re lucky to have a busy night like that,” she said. “That doesn’t happen very often.”
In a Facebook post, Ohren asked anyone with future concerns to call her directly rather than the police, but she said she hasn’t heard a peep since then. Word spread faster than she expected, with the post reaching 133 shares.
“My intention in posting that was to clear the water,” she said. “We understand how this might look when you’re driving through Evansville, Minnesota, and there’s 15 cars in the parking lot. We get how people may perceive that as we’re open, but we’re not. I’m hoping that just that simple message gave people the peace of mind that, ‘Oh OK, they’re still just doing takeout. We’re good.’”
Ohren said her main concerns are ensuring Backroads can pay its bills and providing everyone with food, workers and community members alike.
“People are assuming that restaurants are simply out to make a buck, that we’re being selfish, and that’s not the case at all,” she said.
The most common misunderstanding customers have is that restaurants are trying to finagle around the government orders, but Ohren said they’re doing everything possible just to keep their doors open and their businesses stable.
Ohren said she doesn’t want to be “clumped in” with other trending news stories about restaurants who are saying forget the mandate, opening anyway and facing lawsuits.
Even during the statewide pause on indoor dining, Backroads and other restaurants in Douglas County are finding creative ways to stay open and keep orders rolling.
Pike and Pint Grill reopened patio dining in response.
“If we have a milder day and you have a hankering to show off how Minnesota tough you are, we will crank up our patio heaters and let you enjoy food and beverage outside,” a Facebook post from the restaurant challenged.
Three overhead gas patio heaters were added to the space. If the temperature reaches 30 degrees outside, the patio area may be around 60 degrees at the table tops.
But with a few larger snowfalls and dips in temperature in December, owner Kent Kopp said there have only been a handful of days when they had a few tables on the patio occupied.
“For people that really want to come see us, have a meal on a plate, have a beverage in a glass,” Kopp said. “They’re going to be able to get that fix if they’re willing to shiver.”
He said the outdoor seating was something the governor did to help breweries, especially in metro areas with bonfires available for heating.
“It really isn’t something that’s going to change our trajectory much,” he said.
With the patio seating very limited and interest dwindling, takeout, curbside pickup and gift card sales are the main points of revenue for Pike and Pint.
“We’re getting more takeout than maybe what we really thought we would get, which is awesome,” Kopp said. “The community is definitely working super hard to support us and other restaurants.”
Even with these extra efforts, he estimated that the restaurant bounces around 40 percent of what its average sales used to be.
“In the long run, it’s not going to be sustainable, but we’re happy with what we’re getting right now,” he said.
Kopp wrote a commentary about his perspective on how the COVID-19 pandemic along with its restrictions have affected restaurants.
“He’s really well-spoken, and I think he’s so respected in the community that what he says resonates with people,” Ohren said. “I really enjoyed his post, and I couldn’t agree more.”
Both Kopp and Ohren expressed their appreciation for what the state has been able to give restaurants, but the gap between the relief they’re receiving and the profit they’re missing is still too wide.
“When you’re losing 200,000 plus dollars in a couple of months time, $15,000 doesn’t do anything,” Ohren said. “It’s easy for people to assume that we’re getting this relief, and we’re just fine.”
During the first round of state stimulus funding in a time frame set by the state, businesses had to be down 30 percent of their typical sales in order to qualify for financial help. Since Pike and Pint exceeded that need, Kopp said the restaurant didn’t qualify.
“For us, 99% sure we’re going to survive it,” Kopp said. “But unfortunately for me and my family, we’re blowing through our life savings in order to get to the other side of this, and I don’t necessarily think that’s right.”
There’s a chance Pike and Pint may receive some federal funding, and he has hope for some of the state funding that’s being filtered down to the county level to distribute.
“I think our county has been pretty good about looking for gaps in need, and we could potentially get some help in that direction,” Kopp said.