Former Pho Saigon in West St. Paul, soon to be Mela Tha Cuisine.

Coping With Covid-19: How West St. Paul Businesses Are Doing Six Months In

Thanks to Cherokee Service for their support.

It’s been six months since the COVID-19 shutdowns brought the U.S. economy to a standstill. Unemployment exploded as the virus raged, with 20 million people out of work in May. As of September, the U.S. death toll is nearing 200,000 (in Dakota County, it’s 120).

Back in March we looked at how businesses were adapting and then in April we checked in how they were coping. Now that shutdowns have been lifted but businesses are still coping with limitations and mask mandates, we wanted to see how they’re coping.

How’s Business?

“In one word: busy,” says Noelle Mortensen, owner of Southview Garden Center. “100% due to the outstanding support of our community.”

“We have definitely seen the effects of the pandemic, just like everyone else,” says Modern Day Music owner Emily Kellerman. “But our motto has always been to go the extra mile for our community and to rise to every challenge.”

Modern Day Music shifted to online music lessons in the spring. Now they’re seeing a surge of new students. They’re also trying to help school music programs with a new school-specific section of their online store to help families get the right music book.

“Business is OK, all things considered,” says Jena Bushey, owner of Legacy American Martial Arts. “The toughest thing we’re dealing with is that we’ve been at 25% capacity since June.”

Not all businesses are doing well. Perkins, Baker’s Square, and Chuck E. Cheese have all filed bankruptcy and closed their West St. Paul locations, While only the Chuck E. Cheese announcement specifically mentioned COVID-19, the pandemic has hit restaurants hard.

And it’s not just chains. DulceMex closed in April with no sign of reopening. Pho Saigon (featured in our Asian restaurant round up) recently closed. Dunham’s Bar and Restaurant just reopened after a long closure, and Granny Donuts is still closed with no word on when they’ll reopen (though it seems likely they will—they recently rejected redevelopment offers).

Pace’s Tire and Service Center reported that business is down 10% to 12% in a WCCO story.

The new pub bistro FoodSmith had the misfortune of opening exactly eight days before the shutdown.

“We are down 60% in revenue,” says owner Ann Ulrich. “This is unsustainable given that rents, mortgages, food costs, insurance, taxes, and other costs of doing business have gone unchanged.”

But she remains positive: “Not complaining!” she says. “The customers supporting us are great and we could not be more grateful for them”

Adapting to COVID-19

Many businesses have had to change how they operate to meet COVID-19 guidelines. That’s meant a lot more drive thru and carry out, which has resulted in long lines often spilling into the street. Culver’s reoriented their parking lot to handle the cars and Cane’s wrapped the drive thru line around the building with the help of police directing traffic (off-duty officers, paid for by Cane’s).

Amore Coffee rolled out a new takeout window that allowed them to stay open early in the pandemic. After 168 days they recently reopened to allow people inside for takeout (but no in-door dining).

The City Council approved expanded outdoor seating in May to help out local restaurants, and a number of them rolled out tents and more permanent patios.

El Cubano Restaurant in West St. Paul with patio dining.
El Cubano added a new, outdoor dining space in May.

FoodSmith added a patio in June, thanks to a business subsidy grant from the city.

“We would be closed permanently by now without a patio,” says Ulrich. “As with most other restaurant owners, we are sitting on pins and needles wondering what’s around the corner when it’s too cold to sit outside.”

For now FoodSmith, is taking a couple days off to retool their menu and should reopen on Wednesday.

Several restaurants have taken the opportunity to make bigger changes. Cherokee Tavern is rebranding as Jameson’s Irish Bar and shifting their focus to catering and events. The BLVD is also working on a $440,000 expansion. Both projects received business subsidy grants from the city.

Southview Garden Center has had to cancel most of their events, but they’re still planning their annual Ladies Night Out event on Thursday, Sept. 17. The event features wine and local artisans.

New Businesses

Then there are the brave folks starting new businesses. Despite the difficult times, a number of new businesses have opened or plan to open soon:

Plus the rash of new development continues, including apartments at the former Kmart, Town Center One, and Gateway Place, and the long-awaited Hy-Vee.

Supportive Customers

Not a single business we reached out to talked about problems with customers complying with the mask mandate. Instead every business expressed their appreciation for supportive customers.

“Some of them are really enjoying the option to do Zoom classes a couple days a week if work keeps them late or, heaven forbid, a family member gets COVID-19 and they have to quarantine for two weeks,” says Bushey. “But most of them are just so glad for a place to burn off energy or relieve stress, even with masks and socially distanced.”

In that WCCO story, Ken Pace talked about customers spending their stimulus checks on auto repairs to help out the shop.

“Our customers are amazing!” Kellerman says. “It has been great to see how many have gone
out of their way to support local businesses.”

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