HALLOCK, Minn. – Five hours before Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz issued his Nov. 18 order for the state’s restaurants to close their doors to in-person dining, Shamrock Grill owner Becky Vagle notified her customers she would deliver food to them.
“WE WILL DO DELIVERY! Let us know if you want us to deliver tonight too,” reads Vagle’s 12:19 p.m. social media post in large white letters on a background of blue. Knowing what happened to her Hallock business last spring when Walz ordered restaurants closed, and hearing rumblings that he planned to issue a similar order, Vagle wanted to do as much preemptive damage control as possible, she said.
When the Shamrock Grill was closed to dine-in service from March 17 to June 18, Vagle’s income dropped significantly; after a brief uptick during the summer, business fell off again. She believes the increase in COVID-19 cases this fall is responsible for the recent decline in the number of customers who frequent the cafe.
“I think people are scared,” she said.
November sales to date are $10,000 lower than they were during the same period a year ago, Vagle said.
That’s despite implementing several plans during the past eight months to boost income. For example, Vagle this spring sold her customers meat and fruit that she ordered from her supplier, bagging it up and setting it on tables in her cafe, where they picked it up.
“Kind of like I was their personal shopper,” Vagle said.
“That was my supplemental income to help out the first few months. The food orders alone weren’t keeping my doors open,” she said.
Besides offering her customers grocery items, Vagle is creating unique specials for customers. In the spring, she made a thousand cookies, which she sold in decorating kits at Easter. She has prepared family-style meals for takeout and sells bread and pastries she buys from a Canadian company.
She is grateful for Shamrock Grill's loyal customers, who have supported her by buying groceries, giving her gift cards to offset her expenses and who continue to order from her.
On Thursday, for example a trio of men from C&M Ford in Hallock came in to buy takeout lunches and pick up groceries.
Jordan Lofstrom, a C&M salesman, believes it’s important small businesses support each other, he said as he paid for his boxed lunch. And buying lunch at the Shamrock Grill is a win-win, he said.
“You can’t beat the food,” he said.
But because there aren’t enough customers buying food, Vagle has cut the cafe hours and the hours of her part-time employees to reduce costs. Meanwhile, she hasn’t taken a paycheck in several months, Vagle said.
The $14,000 small business loan she received this past spring helped with payroll and her electric bill, but her losses still are significant and the cafe’s future is uncertain, she said.
A 16-year employee of an investment brokerage firm, the cafe Vagle bought three years ago is her passion. It provides her with more flexibility to spend time with her daughter.
When Walz issued the order the evening of Nov. 18, the potential to lose more income started Vagle’s stomach churning.
“I was completely stressed,” she said. That night, she didn’t sleep. Questions barraged her mind.
“Do I give up? Do I keep going? Do I keep this place and get another job for a while?” Vagle asked herself.
While she hasn’t figured out an answer to those questions, Vagle is clear about what she thinks of the governor's order.
“I think the governor of Minnesota is 100% wrong," she said. ”I think everything is based on Minneapolis-St. Paul."
She believes a small-town cafe is an essential business. It makes no sense to Vagle that her cafe, in a town of about 900, is closed to stop the spread of COVID-19, but large stores in cities can be open.
“I think I’m in a safer environment here than people walking up and down the aisles of a big box store in Grand Forks or Fargo or Thief River Falls, “ Vagle said. “I think the corporations are getting richer, and the small businesses are dying. ... They can’t keep surviving if they don’t have customers.”