Have food and drink businesses rebounded from pandemic?

By Scott Carlson, Sarah CR Clark and Janet Wight

A year ago in our Food and Drink Guide, the Bugle reported that local food businesses were still reeling from the effects of the pandemic, with their owners fervently hoping the virus was dissipating.

“This pandemic has not gone away,” Pam Johnson, owner of The Little Wine Shoppe, said then.

Well, today, the pandemic still hasn’t disappeared, fueled now with new variants of the virus.

But the rollout of vaccines and booster shots appears to have largely tamped down the sting of the Covid-19 virus, enabling our American society to embark on a cautious return to a new normalcy. The bottom line assessment: Covid is here to stay, but we are learning to cope with it.

The following reports offer an update on three of the businesses we interviewed last year: Colossal Cafe, The Little Wine Shoppe and Urban Growler.

Colossal Cafe

Elizabeth Tinucci, owner of Colossal Cafe (locations on Como Avenue and Grand Avenue), reflected, “Covid doesn’t feel behind us but instead is now just a part of us.”

Colossal’s dine-in business was busy again this summer, Tinucci reported, and said both take-out orders as well as third-party delivery orders have remained higher than pre-pandemic levels. Catering orders — virtually non-existent during the pandemic — returned this past spring to pre-pandemic numbers as well, Tinucci added.

At the Como Avenue location, Tinucci said, her cafe’s partnership with St. Anthony Park Lutheran Church has allowed for an expanded patio after the city of St. Paul rescinded its flexible patio permits available during Covid.

The cafe shortened hours in the early days of the pandemic to reduce labor costs and those shorter hours will remain.

“We are trying to approach employee retention as a whole-person endeavor,” Tinucci said, adding that more of their methods for doing so include, in part: increasing wages, providing health insurance, matching IRA contributions, offering paid and unpaid time off as well as predictable scheduling.

At the start of the pandemic, Colossal Cafe began offering a weekly take and bake menu and they continued fulfilling these orders for two and a half years.

“The sales helped us stay afloat during the times we were completely closed for dine in and during the times before the vaccines when many people were still more comfortable dining at home,” Tinnuci said. After taking the summer off to collect customer feedback, take and bake menus will return this fall and will include special holiday offerings, as well.

Reflecting on early 2020, Tinucci said, “On a personal note, I really struggle talking about the pandemic and our business. My truth is that I still cry easily when talking about the early days!

“I want to make sure the community knows we know that, in large part, we made it because of them. I want them to know we seem busy but wages and cost of goods are through the roof.

“I want them to know that those of us who worked in restaurants through the pandemic have been changed. I want the community to know we truly love what we do and we are so grateful we get to continue to do it in SAP!”

The Little Wine Shoppe

Pam Johnson, owner of the Little Wine Shoppe, said that in terms of running her business, “I’m not sure Covid will ever be behind us, but it seems the new strains are weakening which makes the future look brighter.”

Johnson reported that she is still running the shop’s air purifier and she is looking into an HVAC air filtration system for her store’s space at its new location at Como and Doswell avenues.

She said she hopes to bring back their shop’s pre-pandemic monthly indoor wine tastings this fall, which had been significantly scaled back as a health precaution.

Urban Growler

The extended beer garden at the Urban Growler in south St. Anthony Park beckons area residents to enjoy a pint of fresh craft beer or a quick meal. This expansive outdoor patio can accommodate more than 200 customers, making it a more pandemic friendly venue.

The brewery restaurant is approaching its pre-pandemic level of business due to the spacious outdoor space coupled with offering its full menu for carryout, including 25-ounce crowlers to go, according to its owners and managers.

“We took cues from other casual dining restaurants and invented our own version of contactless pickup and curbside delivery,” Urban Growler general manager Van Johnson said.

All of the IPAs, ales and lagers served at the Urban Growler are brewed on the premises in small batches. In addition to offering flagship beers, seasonal rotating flavors are available which liven up the choices for beer aficionados.

The food menu changes twice per year and includes many bar favorites including tempting appetizers, sandwiches and burgers. A popular Friday night walleye fish fry, priced at $20, is available year around. Fortunately, supply chain issues related to the pandemic are no longer a concern, Johnson said.

The top priority for Urban Growler, a woman-owned business, is to provide a comfortable environment for all of its customers.

“We value diversity above everything else; it is important for us to be welcoming,” Johnson added.

Events are a part of the Urban Growler ambience.

Upcoming events include Tuesday night trivia, which will return on Oct. 11. It will be held from 6:30 until 8:30 pm complete with prizes and giveaways. Blueberry wheat beer will be available in October along with the traditional favorites.

Scott Carlson is Bugle managing editor.

Sarah CR Clark and Janet Wight are regular freelance contributors to the Bugle.

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