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A year of disruption: Bismarck-Mandan bars, restaurants hopeful about post-pandemic future

A year of disruption: Bismarck-Mandan bars, restaurants hopeful about post-pandemic future

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Friends, from left, Gordon Hoffman, Cameron O'Brien, Tate Hoffman and John Hausauer meet at the Blarney Stone Irish Pub in downtown Bismarck on a recent Friday afternoon.

Jim Poolman considers the Blarney Stone lucky in weathering the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.

“It was pretty grim last April and May, but slowly but surely, traffic has picked up,” said the co-owner of the downtown Bismarck Irish pub.

Gov. Doug Burgum last March closed bars and restaurants to onsite service for six weeks after the pandemic emerged in North Dakota. Dining establishments were limited to takeout and delivery services. Even after reopening May 1, businesses were subject to the governor’s “ND Smart Restart” reopening guidelines for seating capacity, social distancing and other safety protocols, according to risk levels.

The takeout model didn’t come easily at first, Poolman said, but he’s been impressed with customers’ support of local businesses and adherence to the protocols. Blarney Stone retained almost all of its 50 staff, and “tried to give as many hours as possible,” Poolman said. Federal coronavirus aid and state grant programs helped the business.

Staff removed bar stools and tables to accommodate distancing measures and reduce capacity -- not a natural setting for the usually crowded pub. Poolman hopes to see 100% capacity around summer when vaccinations are likely to be more plentiful. Blarney Stone is at about 75% capacity now, he said.

Restaurants, schools react to new capacity guidelines

“Even though we may see light at the end of the tunnel, we still want to be as responsible as possible to our customers to keep them safe,” he said.

It’s been a year since the pandemic swept into North Dakota. And when statewide mandates were imposed to slow the spread of the virus, small businesses felt the impact. Some survived by adapting, accepting assistance, and learning what lessons they could. Some closed for good.

Lessons learned

The hardship of the pandemic was accompanied by some business lessons for Colton Shoults, the owner of three food and drink establishments in Bismarck.

“The biggest thing was when we had to shut down, it was so sudden,” he said. “It happened quickly and we laid off 40 people.”

Of the three, Laughing Sun Brewery -- which specializes in house-made beers and barbecue -- was hit hardest by state mandates. Some of the barbecued meats on the menu are smoked for 12-14 hours. That means preparation starts the day before the food is served.

“It takes a lot of strategy and planning,” Shoults said. When he was forced into curbside and carryout service only, it didn’t pay to fire up a smoker knowing he couldn't fill his restaurant to capacity.

Shoults started offering barbecue meals on Fridays and Saturdays and required that customers preorder. It gave his crew a chance to plan for the weekend and eliminated waste. The restaurant often had to stop taking orders on Thursday because it ran out of smoker capacity.

“It kept us afloat,” he said.

It also showed him which meals were the most popular. He’ll use that information to change the focus of his menu.

“We’ll approach it with a simple mindset to be great at the main focal points,” he said. “I think we understand what our customers want.”

Packaged wholesale beer sales “went through the roof,” Shoults said, but with the storefront closed the sale from keg beer -- which has a better profit margin -- disappeared.

“We learned you want a balance between package sales and keg sales,” he said.

Once beer is in a keg the work is mostly done. Packaging beer requires cans, labels and labor. Shoults doesn’t make as much money from it, but keeping it in front of people means keeping them as customers.

Shoults also owns The CraftCade -- which offers pizza, a selection of draft beers and arcade games -- and Grand Junction Grilled Subs in Bismarck. Access to The CraftCade’s self-serve Beer Wall and video games was shut down, but takeout pizza service continued. Grand Junction offered only curbside pickup and delivery from March until the reopening.

Recovery is in sight, Shoults said. Most of his employees -- he calls them his A-team -- came back to work. Laughing Sun a few weeks ago had the second-busiest day in its history.

“Now with warmer weather and if we keep the trend going, we should be in a good spot at the start of summer,” he said.

Business aid

North Dakota businesses and workers benefited from a breadth of state and federal coronavirus aid.

More than 20,500 loans totaling $1.77 billion were made to North Dakota businesses under the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which covered payroll costs and expired in August.

North Dakota received $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act coronavirus aid. The state-owned Bank of North Dakota launched several relief programs using CARES Act money and bank capital. The aid included:

  • Small Employer Loan Fund: 910 loans for $30.8 million
  • COVID-PACE Recovery I Loan Program: 277 loans for $377 million
  • COVID-PACE Recovery II Program: $35 million to 810 businesses

North Dakota's Commerce Department used CARES Act money to dole out millions in grants for business aid, including:

  • Economic Resiliency Grant: 2,064 applications awarded $38.7 million
  • Hospitality Economic Resiliency Grant: 1,026 applications awarded $35 million in two rounds; Round Two is ongoing
  • Hospitality Economic Resiliency Grant PLUS: 197 applications awarded $8.4 million; Round Two is ongoing

Bismarck-Mandan Chamber EDC President Brian Ritter said the different assistance programs evolved to meet businesses' changing needs, from keeping employees on the payroll to helping businesses reopen with safety measures in place.

"I think what can't be overstated was how all these agencies worked in partnership," Ritter said.

He couldn't say whether any local businesses were pandemic casualties, but said "I think we have to assume that there were at least some."

"I think we would be naive to think that there weren't businesses who closed strictly because of the pandemic or were hastened because of the pandemic," Ritter said.

Job Service North Dakota administered more than $1 billion in unemployment assistance, including more than $650 million in federal money, since March 16. North Dakota workers filed more than 143,000 claims. The assistance includes:

  • Regular State Benefits: $391.2 million
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Benefits: $56.3 million
  • Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation Benefits: $89.1 million
  • Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Benefits: $470.5 million
  • Lost Wages Supplemental Payment Assistance Benefits: $34.2 million

Fighting back

For personal care services such as hair salons, massage parlors, and body art businesses, and for recreation and fitness businesses such as gyms, staying alive was a battle. The state last March and April ordered a multiweek shutdown of those businesses.

It will take some time for the fitness industry to rebound from what the owner of Verge Fitness said was a message that pushed people away from healthy habits.

“Instead of 'get healthy,' the message was 'cover your face and stay home,'” Dr. Aaron Moos said.

Verge Fitness was closed for six weeks and membership numbers plummeted. Privately owned gyms compete against nonprofits that run fundraising efforts or city-owned facilities that are funded by tax dollars. He’s offered low-cost and trial-run memberships in an effort to regain business. Membership levels now are climbing but when compared to pre-COVID levels “are not close,” Moos said.

“Most people when they come back are happy to be back,” he said. “They missed it.”

After reopening, Moos and his staff took steps to ensure the facility was clean and safe by installing touchless doors and dryers, foggers and a new air exchange system.

The pandemic “has shown how weak and unhealthy we are as a population,” Moos said, adding that people need to better understand the dangers of obesity and the benefits of healthy eating and active lifestyles.

“We have to adapt and find an angle that entices and educates people,” he said. “Better choices mean less sickness.”

Community support

A combination of adaptions and community support helped Balancing Goat Coffee Co. in Mandan.

The business was barely up and running when pandemic restrictions kicked in. When sit-down dining stopped, owners Karen Schmidt and Dawn Hager used social media and a new storefront sign to divert traffic to their drive-thru window.

“All we’ve been doing is adapting,” Schmidt said. “We’re getting pretty good at it.”

The two make coffee from imported beans -- roasted in-house -- and also offer smoothies, breakfast items and a variety of sandwiches. Business dipped noticeably when sit-down dining was cut off but has picked up in ways they hadn’t expected. Drive-thru access created some new customers, and gift certificate purchases “were huge during this,” Schmidt said.

“Other businesses would buy them and give them out to customers or employees to support local businesses,” she said.

Their business also includes a yoga studio for private and public classes. Those classes aren’t running at full capacity yet, and the coffee shop still has limited capacity. Overall, though, the first quarter of 2021 is financially ahead of 2020 and continuing to grow, Hager said.

“The community never stopped supporting us,” she said.

Adapting

Stuart Tracy has closely tracked customer volume -- butts in the seats, he calls it -- since opening the Pirogue Grille in 2005. It’s vital information used for staffing and ordering consistency.

By St. Patrick’s Day 2020, as talk of the coronavirus spread, it was obvious people were becoming more cautious. When the shutdown was ordered, he and his wife Cheryl were able to keep some servers employed to handle weekend carryout orders.

The restaurant’s entire kitchen staff worked through that period. Others on his staff who worked at day jobs were flexible and told him to give their hours to those whose restaurant jobs were their main source of income.

“I’m grateful and humble for the choices made by our staff,” he said. “Without them doing what they do, we really don’t have much.”

As did other businesses, the Pirogue Grille adapted. Tracy developed throwaway menus and a QR code at tables to make the menu available to customers on their cellphones. Carryout and curbside services will continue.

“It’s not a tremendous revenue stream, but it’s a way for people to get the food we produce,” Tracy said.

The hospitality industry was unfairly looked upon as a major source of infections, Tracy believes. He’s curious about how consumer habits might change as people have steered away from lunch and dinner outings and as a result might have noticed some extra money in their bank accounts.

“There may be some pent-up demand. We’re seeing it on the weekends but not weekdays,” he said.

Overall the state has come through the pandemic pretty well -- some missteps were made “but I don’t recall a pandemic playbook in anybody’s hip pocket,” Tracy said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-223-8482 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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