COVID-19 woes persist for college hotspot businesses


MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Business owners in Dinkytown, the center of student life at the University of Minnesota, continue to face challenges from COVID-19 outbreaks, staffing shortages and crime as they are heading into the new year.

COVID-19 has forced many businesses to make decisions about how they can continue to operate. Recent changes include the upcoming opening of Bober Tea and Mochi Dough in the commercial space where Umami Fries used to be, as well as the arrival of Tiger Sugar in December.

Kent Kramp, owner of Dinkytown Raising Cane’s and vice president of the Dinkytown Business Alliance, said operating a business in a college town during a pandemic has been difficult. Dinkytown stalwarts such as Annie’s Parlor and the Kitty Cat Klub haven’t reopened since March 2020, and newcomers such as Umami Fries have closed less than two years after moving to town, the Minnesota Daily reported.

“Losing the students (last school year) was tough,” Kramp said.

A constant in Dinkytown has been the closing of Annie’s Parlor and the Kitty Cat Klub. Dinkytown’s two must-sees have been closed since March 2020.

“We won’t reopen until we feel comfortable being able to staff the place and see that the number of cases is down,” said John Rimarcik, who owns both facilities as well as a handful of other restaurants in Minneapolis.

Rimarcik said he expects Annie’s and the Kitty Cat Klub to reopen now, but there is no set return date.

“The last time (my restaurants) closed, we lost about $80,000 worth of food,” Rimarcik said. “That doesn’t mean we threw it away, we donated it to shelters and places, but it’s a tough thing.”

Rimarcik said his main difficulty was finding managers and staff, which is a common problem in restaurants across the state. Hospitality Minnesota conducted a study in the fall of 2021 that found 87% of hospitality workers in the state described their work capacity as “tight.”

Wally Sakallah, owner of Wally’s Falafel and Hummus and Hideaway, said crime is another challenge of operating a business in Dinkytown. There was an increase in violent crime in Minneapolis from 2020 to 2021, which was mirrored in Dinkytown.

In the past, Wally said his company’s tip jar was stolen. Sakallah said he usually hires security guards for Wally’s and Hideaway, but has been unable to since the pandemic began.

Business owners say they’ve had to monitor COVID-19 trends so they know when it’s safe to open for dinner. Al’s Breakfast was able to continue operations throughout the pandemic by quickly switching to takeout, owner Alison Kirwin said. Takeout wasn’t profitable on its own, but PPP loans and restaurant revitalization grants kept it afloat.

“Normally being in Dinkytown is really a bonus with such a concentration of students,” Kirwin said. “(COVID-19) outbreaks like this are really denting our business.”

Al’s began offering takeout exclusively at the start of the pandemic and reopened in-person dining in July 2021. Due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among staff, it closed for a few days this month , which was the first time the restaurant had to completely close due to COVID-19.

“Business owners and the people who operate Dinkytown have operated under quite stressful conditions over the past 24 months,” said Kramp of the Dinkytown Business Alliance. “But there’s a lot of resilience, and there’s a lot of people who are really excited.”


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