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Published: July 25, 2020

From Carla Blumberg

I want to try to talk to our dining public in order to share some things I have been thinking about – trying to put together to understand.  The situation we are in now, as you all know, is somewhere we have never been.  The decisions we are making cannot be based on precedent because there is none.  I feel that my primary duty to our business is to preserve it, and that many people depend upon me (and Barb) to do that.

Twenty years ago, before we opened ASTCCC, I went to a meeting at Peace Church – the topic had something to do with community.  One of the presenters was a local restaurateur who had recently purchased a place up the north shore.  He was questioned by someone in the audience, a college professor with a socialist orientation, about why he had eliminated the café’s breakfast service.  She thought that was something the public needed.  He said simply that it was not profitable.  She argued.

I have remembered and pondered this incident ever since.  Because I absolutely believe in commonwealth and common good, the line between what I should be doing for the café and what I feel to be “right,” has been frequently blurred.  I’ve made some decisions that were bad for business.  I’ve paid for some things I should not have.  The longer we have been in business, the easier it has become for me to do what is right for the health of the café.  I do not feel less charitable, but I see clearly that the health of the café is a benefit to the community.

In recent years I have felt repeatedly blessed by our business, which started as Barb’s espresso trailer, At Sara’s Table, and has become a full service restaurant.  Right now, we are very lucky to have a Front of House Manager who understands what our business needs and knows how to get it.  And we have a Back of House Manager who has built our kitchen into what it is and is gracefully and competently moving to retirement and passing the torch to someone who is gracefully and competently accepting it.  But, as I am sure you all know, the horizon is cloudy.  If I said that we were not struggling, it would be an untruth.

The above preamble serves to bring us to the topics I want to visit.  Yesterday, reading the business news, I came across these paragraphs:

Restaurant owners say they hope the makeshift outdoor dining can help them regain lost income and provide a sense of security to customers wary of the safety risk of dining indoors. As they reopen, restaurant owners — along with local government leaders — find themselves weighing the economic benefits of additional dining against the need to protect the public while awaiting the local peak of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is not an easy thing. This is a massive lift when we are in the midst of literally a public health emergency,” Brian Walsh, director of Minneapolis’ Labor Standards Enforcement division, told business owners in a webinar Tuesday afternoon. “What you all are trying to do is a monumental lift and you’re really trying to thread the needle.”  (emphasis mine)

I’ve also read many stories in the business news about community pushback when restaurants try to increase prices in order to fund this lift.  The public does not want this change.  They already feel taken from and abused by this pandemic.

Let’s veer over to a different topic for a minute before we try to resolve this.  Perhaps you know that Eric Utne is a magazine publisher who lives in Linden Hills (a neighborhood of Minneapolis.)  He wrote a long Op Ed in today’s New York Times about the Baby Boomers’ failures which includes this:

The hippie back-to-the-land movement, combined with grass roots political organizing, really was the way to go. We need to regroup. We need a hyperlocal Green New Deal. We need to come together in diverse, intimate, place-based communities. And we need to segue now from the techno-industrial market economy to its sequel — much smaller-scale, less energy-intensive, more localized communities that prize food growing, knowledge sharing, inclusiveness and convivial neighborliness. We need to learn from cultures around the world that are still living as stewards of the larger, biotic community. This is the only kind of a society that might survive the rocky climacteric that already is upon us.

The two examples above, of what is now called “public intellectualism,” do not seem immediately related.  But they are.  They are connected in our industry particularly because they are both symptoms of the same thing.  We’ve all heard recently that farm to table for all is an impossibly spendy concept.  There just is not enough land in the world for everyone to have their own cow, chickens, garden patch, bee hive and fish pond.  Scratch cooking (like what we do) is only for the privileged.  Everyone else needs to be fed by factory farming wherein immigrant workers are crammed into unsanitary slaughterhouses without sufficient PPP and factory fast foods where working conditions are similarly bleak.

I’ll tell you right now, straight up, that dealing with farmers and gardeners is an enormous hassle.  They live in a universe dictated by weather and the vagaries of fecundity.  They work by the rhythms of freezing and thawing, growing and ripening, sowing and reaping.  Restaurant workers are governed by the rhythms of public demand.  Switching gears between those two worlds is difficult.  It takes time and patience.  When we first opened, I did all that work myself.  I went down to Cannon Falls and saw the place where the animals were “harvested.”  I went down to Wrenshall to look at potatoes.  We adhere as we can to the traditions of manoomin harvest.  We tried having bees on our roof but it was too hot and the bees hated it.  They all flew over to the bush by the pizza place and the bee man had to come round them up.  I’ve been over to Bayfield to talk about Lake Superior whitefish and up to Red Lake to discuss walleye.  But now, we are just too old for all that and it has to be done by someone else.  In other words, it must be paid for.

At the same time, now, we are finding we must provide a comfortable and safe environment for our customers.  What that has meant is we are strung out all over our campus.  This past week I met one on one with the servers and they all told me that they are working harder and making less.  It is very burdensome to service the tables on the far side of the parking lot.  (I love sitting out there and having dinner with Barb.  It’s just so nice.)  But they all told me they are clocking between six and ten miles a shift on their fit bits.  Inside, cooking in a hot kitchen with a mask on is hellish.  The drive through and to go orders come automatically from the website, so there is no traffic warning of feet in the door.  The first you know of an order is when it spits out of the kitchen printer.  The telephone rings constantly.

I’m telling you all these things because they represent the forces that inform decisions Barb and I must make now.  We have just last year gotten to a place where I feel comfortable with our pay scale.  We are unwilling to squeeze our employees to accommodate this new reality.  Having this virus arrive weeks after completion of a major kitchen renovation was just rotten luck.  Keeping you all safe is something that we must do. The only place we can turn is to you.  If we are to continue as a business, we must charge enough to stay afloat.  I apologize for this, but it has to be.

Going forward, after this pandemic, let’s try to work together to recreate our society in such a way that everyone can afford the things they need and at least some of the things they want.  We are all in this and we must begin to act that way.

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