“We’re coming out of it strong,” proclaims eternal optimist Jon Rud who with his wife and business partner, Nancy Rud, has owned and operated Berry Sweet Kitchen at 54th Street and 34th Avenue since 2013. Jon is referring to how he and Nancy feel as restaurant owners in the Nokomis East community as they have weathered the COVID storm. “We have amazingly loyal customers from the neighborhood. They have been so good to us. They have been stepping up big time by ordering a lot and tipping generously. We feel incredibly grateful.”
Also feeling the love of a kind and caring clientele holding her business together is Tamara Brown, founder and owner for the last six years of Sassy Spoon at 5011 34th Avenue South. “Our customer base is super loyal – they keep coming back. We are a destination restaurant, as we are gluten-free, so we appreciate not only our neighborhood customers but those who come from a distance.” Tamara is quick to point out that not only loyal patrons but loyal, long-term staff have made this unusual time so much more tolerable. “Seven of us work here including me and we’re all great friends.”
Alfonso Sanchez and his three business partners committed to leasing the beautiful space formerly occupied by Al Vento at the corner of 50th Street and 34th Avenue in February 2020. Little did they know a worldwide pandemic was about to unfold that would test their mettle even before opening the doors of their upscale Mexican restaurant, Casa Maria.
COVID-19 caused significant delays in securing necessary licenses and performing cosmetic alterations to the space. By the time Casa Maria actually opened well into June, the business model was a far cry from what had been envisioned by its owners and only take-out service has been available.
Previously Alfonso worked as a cook for 24 years, and just one of his partners has had restaurant ownership experience. The foursome is characterized by unbridled enthusiasm for their new venture, and is hopeful that once COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror, their onsite dining service will flourish. "We have not advertised and our business thus far has all been word-of-mouth,” said Alfonso. “Though we are not yet well-established, our customers – many of whom live in the neighborhood – report they love our food and we are so pleased.” Casa Maia has a goal to become a fine destination restaurant known for creating authentic Mexican dishes consistently sourced from the highest quality ingredients.
COVID-19 arrived last year just as Berry Sweet was set to substantially expand their seating space by June, add a dinner menu, and begin liquor service following a long-fought process to secure licensure. “March through May were tough for us as we learned how to do carry-out and adjusted our days and hours of operation,” Jon said. “We put our plans for adding dinner on hold repeatedly. We made take-out dinner available for a while but that ended up costing us more than we made.” Determining how many staff members the business could support and keep busy has been part of the COVID-19 learning curve as well. Nancy noted that at times Berry Sweet’s staff has been reduced from between 12 and 14 to as few as four. “We’ve been seating at 50% capacity since June during the times we’ve been open,” Nancy said. Berry Sweet was closed altogether from Nov. 29 through Jan. 14 – during which time the Ruds vacationed with wonderful friends who Nancy points out have been especially generous and supportive. “Jon and I had each been working about 10-hour days, and we continue to work long hours. It’s very stressful and I have not felt rested.”
Sassy Spoon was closed altogether March through June and later re-opened part time for take-out.
A common ingredient in great measure shared by the Ruds and Tamara as restaurateurs is entrepreneurial spirit. “Sassy Spoon is my child!” proclaims Tamara. “We had enjoyed success beyond all expectation, then COVID-19 hit. Our take-out business could be better, but I feel driven to keep the business successful. I’ve never thought about working for someone else.”
The Ruds admit that while there have been days in the past year when the thought has crossed their minds to work for somebody other than themselves, as with Tamara they love their work and that passion propels them forward. “We’ve always just wanted to be able to work. Lately we have just been trying to survive,” said Nancy.
While Sassy Spoon has not procured any loans to stay afloat during COVID and has survived on true grit, the owners of Berry Sweet feel that in addition to the generosity of their patrons, they owe their survival to PPP loans and grants – including a $5,000 gift from area businessman Bob St. Mane through St. Mane’s Minnesota Strong effort which garnered a fair amount of press coverage late last year. Nancy said one neighborhood senior who resides at Nokomis Square Cooperative mailed the Ruds a check for $30 with an accompanying note encouraging Jon and Nancy to ‘Stay Strong.’ “We were just so moved by her kindness,” said Jon.
Delivery and online orders
Sassy Spoon has not participated in a delivery program because as Tamara explains, “We are a tiny restaurant and we rely on customers to come pick up their orders.” Berry Sweet attributes no more than 25% of their business to delivery through DoorDash, a service which in Minneapolis can retain up to 15% of a participating restaurant’s take. Casa Maria has delivery service available through both DoorDash and ChowNow, though Alfonso is uncertain as to what percentage of their business this accounts for.
Known for their catering service during normal times, Berry Sweet Kitchen has handled no more than one catering gig each month since the pandemic hit. “We had $6,000 worth of catering orders booked when COVID-19 hit,” said Jon. “All canceled.” Nancy added, “When we opened Berry Sweet, we envisioned ourselves as a catering service primarily, but now the restaurant drives our business and catering has just been icing on the cake.”
The Ruds feel the owner of their building has been exceedingly understanding and that they could not wish for a better landlord. “We planned to try to buy the building, but now we’ll wait and see what happens,” said Nancy.
What will this summer look like?
Somedays “normal” feels far away to Tamara. She’d love to believe that before terribly long Sassy Spoon can be back up and running for indoor dining. Meanwhile, she is trying to envision options for what re-opening might look like. She looks forward to having table service – and especially beverage service – outside once again as the summer months are typically her best season.
Jon said he only sees business getting better as 2021 progresses. “Our senior crowd has been returning, though some remain fearful of dining indoors,” he noted. “Once people have been vaccinated and we are able to raise capacity, Berry Sweet will be in a strong position to get through the next couple years – thanks to the generosity of this community.”
“But in business,” added Nancy, “we are always careful to not over-spend.”
Alfonso and his partners have lots of determination and hold great hope for the future of Casa Maria. Meanwhile their take-out proceeds can only just cover the overhead, and Alfonso personally is working seven days a week. Alfonso notes that his daughter, Eylani, who is social media savvy, has stepped up and been a tremendous contributor to the effort. His team feels it’s important to keep spirits high, and to that end decorated the main dining room for Valentine’s Day in February even though dine-in guests were not expected.
Jon noted he and Nancy have occasionally enjoyed exchanging ideas with other area restaurateurs through their membership in Nokomis East Business Association (NEBA), and Tamara said she likes the warm energy of the neighborhood business community.
If you or someone you know would like to get involved with NEBA or find out how you can help with NEBA’s next project, you can contact the organization at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEBA board member Bob Albrecht owns Bob Albrecht Real Estate, LLC in Keeywaydin.
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