How food workers’ hidden sacrifices keep Minnesota plates full

Matty Tucker, Zen Box

Matty Tucker, Zen Box Emily Cassel

There’s one thing even a pandemic can’t change: We’ve all gotta eat.

The way we eat, though? That’s changed drastically since the start of 2020. Restaurant employees have been among the hardest hit by COVID-related closures, as Minnesota dining rooms were ordered to shutter for safety’s sake in mid-March and mass layoffs ripped through the industry.

Meanwhile, there are still line cooks and grocery store workers showing up every day, donning masks and taking your credit card from behind plexiglass shields. They’re likely making less money, and are certainly at greater personal risk, than if they’d been laid off and started collecting unemployment. We wanted to know: What have the past few months been like for these essential workers?

Oh, not so bad, they say. They’ll tell you that sales are down 50 percent, but that they could have it so much worse, or that though there was a day when they had just one customer, they’re so grateful for that one customer’s support.

We heard a common refrain from the farmers, butchers, baristas, and cooks we spoke to for this feature: They’re just trying to do their jobs. And those jobs—keeping our shelves stocked and our stomachs full—are more important than ever. Here are some of their stories.

Karl Reier, Leaning Tower of Pizza

Karl Reier, Leaning Tower of Pizza Emily Cassel

Karl Reier, Leaning Tower of Pizza

According to lore, the Leaning Tower of Pizza was one of only four restaurants in Minneapolis serving pizza when it opened on the corner of 24th Street and Lyndale Avenue South.

The year was 1959. Large pizzas cost just $1.25.

Since those days, the Tower, still situated on that same corner, has become a well-trodden landmark known for serving everything from burgers and stiff drinks to those original pizzas. And in its kitchen you’ll find Karl Reier, a line cook with managerial duties and a “nose to the grindstone” work ethic, who is tending to the monument’s legacy and feeding its patrons despite a shuttered dining room.

And the Tower’s customers? Reier says they’re keeping him as busy as ever.

“I mean, the actual restaurant itself is a lot quieter. There’s not as much hustle and bustle in the dining room due to social distancing, but it’s still pretty busy.... Last week we actually ran out of cheese for our pizzas,” he says, recounting a particularly busy Friday, and pandemic rushes that inspired trips to Cub and Kowalski’s. “Absolutely incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“My good days are where we go through a lot more burgers than we’re anticipating, and ‘Oh, we’re out of lettuce now!’” he explains. Years of learning the restaurant’s rhythms went out the window in the past couple months, and it’s been easy to get blindsided by ordering patterns since shifting to takeout.

And on those worse days? At most, Reier admits having more staff might be nice since business is (thankfully) popping—including generous, community-minded gestures like giving away ten one-topping pizzas daily to people laid off from the service industry. Still, he says, “I don’t mean to complain. It’s not really that rough.”

He understands that a skeleton crew is a necessary safety measure. So while Reier and co. hold down the line in back—donning masks, taking extra safety precautions, and washing hands three times more often than even before this started, which is a lot—the front-of-house crew wants to make sure you, they, and Reier all stay healthy, too. Where once they’d have spent downtime rolling silverware for dine-in guests, now they assemble and pleat face masks for customer use.

“The person making them has a face mask and gloves on, in a sterilized booth. They’ll make maybe 30 or 40 a day. And then they’re just at the front counter as needed,” Reier says, getting to the heart of the people, not just the pizzas, who have kept the Leaning Tower standing for so many years. —Sarah Brumble

Albert and Zye Kurniawan, Young Man

Albert and Zye Kurniawan, Young Man Emily Cassel

Zye and Albert Kurniawan, Young Man

Zye and Albert Kurniawan had been looking for a restaurant location for about a year. The husband-wife duo behind the Don Oishi food truck wanted to bring Hawaiian-Balinese fusion fare to a permanent Minneapolis address, and they finally found one in October—the same month Zye had a baby. So while she spent much of the time that followed at home with their newborn, Albert readied their new restaurant, hoping for a March opening.

They met their deadline, and Young Man debuted at 38th and Nicollet on March 7. A week and a half later, Gov. Tim Walz issued the executive order closing Minnesota’s bars and restaurants.

“It was a shock,” Zye says. “It was a really scary situation at the time.”

Young Man’s physical footprint is small; they have maybe 12 chairs in the dining area. And a few folks did order sit-down service—in the first week. “We were pretty happy with that,” Zye says.

It’s been tough since. For a place like Young Man, where the small dining room means takeout would have made up a sizeable chunk of revenue even without state-wide restrictions, it’s still nigh impossible to cut through the COVID-19 noise and get the word out about a new restaurant. Albert says they’re thankful for the food bloggers who have stopped by, ordered dinner, and shared info about Young Man during these strange and stressful early days. After local ’grammer @kimlycurry praised their gyoza and takoyaki to her nearly 50,000 followers last month, they had a nice little surge in business.

“But the next day, it’s down again,” Zye laughs. “One day, we opened, we only had one customer.”

Because relentless optimism is the only way to get through this, the Kurniawan couple hasn’t stopped thinking about the future. Albert’s planning to add new options to the menu, and they’re considering trying delivery in addition to curbside pickup.

“For me, it feels up and down, a roller coaster every day,” Zye says. “We were afraid we couldn’t pay utility bills and especially the rent, but we try, every day, hanging in here. Because the neighborhood really supports us.”

“We’ll fight this and do our best to keep the business running... till [we’ve] passed this pandemic together,” Albert adds. He echoes the feeling we all share right now, whether we run a restaurant or not: “Hopefully everything will be back to normal again soon.” —Emily Cassel

Dean Nelson, Cub Foods

Believe it or not, Dean Nelson got a job in a Cub Foods meat department for romantic reasons.

“I didn’t have a lot of direction as a young man,” he says. “I fell in love with a woman, and realized I had to straighten my life out.”

Nelson had worked in the restaurant industry in his early and mid-20s. While doing prep work in a kitchen one day, he realized he could pursue that same task full-time—and in a union job at that. As the son of a Teamsters member, he’d grown up respecting the power of organized labor. He enrolled in a program at Dakota County Technical College, and within a year and a half, took a job as a meat cutter at Cub Foods. That was 25 years ago, and Nelson, 51, is still behind the counter six days a week at a Cub in the East Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul, where he’s worked the 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift for the better part of the last decade.

The job means lots of face-to-face, hand-to-hand contact, and lately Nelson can tell his customers are uncomfortable, even to the point of being apologetic. He’s stressed out, too.

“My anxiety level is through the roof,” he says. “My flight response, toward the end of my shift, starts to kick in, and in my head I can hear the voice of Sam Kinison, yelling, ‘Ruuuuuuuuun!’”

In June 2014, Nelson was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, which he treats with a daily dose of radiation in pill form. The medication has worked “absolutely fantastic,” but it’s taken a toll on his immune system. Almost without fail, Nelson gets sick for a couple weeks with a cold or flu every fall, and again in the winter.

He changes gloves so often he can use up most of a 100-count box in a single shift, and started wearing a mask at work even before Cub mandated them a couple weeks ago. The store-issued cloth masks make him feel like he’s rebreathing the same air repeatedly, and sometimes at night, long after he’s left work, he feels like it’s still on his face.

“The fabric is the same fabric as Fruit of the Loom underwear, so it feels like you’re breathing through a little kid’s undies,” Nelson says. “And by the end of the day it’s moist, so it feels like the kid peed in those undies. It’s hard, but it’s the right thing to do.”

He and his girlfriend, who works at a chiropractor’s office, go for walks almost every day, and take turns being the one who’s wound up or the one who’s supportive. A bit of dark humor helps. Some days, so does a post-shift beer or two. They cook a couple meals in per day, and have been ordering a lot of takeout to support local restaurants.

Nelson used to consume a couple hours of television news a day, though he says he’s cut back since one very long night watching 2010 midterm election results. These days, he and his girlfriend want to know the basics, but have their limits.

“It’s so uncertain, nobody really knows anything, and when you sit and listen to people talk about it on a repeated basis, it’s too much,” he says. “It’s been hard on us, and I know it’s hard on other people.”—Mike Mullen

Jennifer Maguire, United Noodles

Jennifer Maguire, United Noodles Emily Cassel

Jennifer Maguire, United Noodles

Think back to mid-March, when coronavirus had just started creeping into the Twin Cities. Nationally, the CDC hadn’t yet recommended we wear masks in public; locally, the idea that restaurant dining rooms might reopen in a few weeks didn’t sound absurd. Governor Walz had just canceled St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

Way back then, I was surprised to pop into United Noodles on a Saturday ramen run to find all employees were wearing face masks. One hummed along at a table behind a sewing machine making more colorful cloth coverings, which were available for $10 each.

That early response came largely because United Noodles owner Eric Fung found himself in Taiwan at the end of January, where they’ve had “astounding success,” per the BBC, in fighting COVID-19.

“He was, in real time, seeing what was happening in Taiwan, which was very immediate and very proactive,” says Jennifer Maguire, United Noodles’s chief compliance officer. Taiwanese officials sent investigators to China to learn what was going on with the virus—and how they might stop it. Masks were mandated and distributed regularly by the government; sanitization procedures quickly went into place. As a result, Taiwan has recorded just 440 cases and seven deaths in a population of 23 million.

That’s why Maguire was hired: She was brought on in mid-March chiefly to lead the COVID-19 response. Her team—made up of United Noodles’ cashiers, their chief operating officer, and Unideli’s chef—meets regularly to discuss how procedures are working, what needs to change, and what else should happen to keep employees and customers safe. “It’s ongoing, and it’s constantly being watched to make sure we’re effectively reducing the spread and preventing it here.”

United Noodles’ response has been comprehensive and nimble. Even before Maguire arrived, UN employees were wearing masks (KN95s), which were provided to all employees, along with hazard pay. On May 4 they made it a requisite for customers to wear masks, and they’re allowing no more than one shopper per household in the store at a time.

They’ve added at-risk shopping hours on weekend mornings and host DIY mask demonstrations on Saturdays. They assembled a sanitization team that cleans everything from doorknobs to shopping carts. They ordered door handles made of copper, which unlike glass or metal doesn’t let the virus survive for days. Fung is actually working to get a piece of thermal imaging equipment that scans customers’ foreheads as they enter and sounds an alarm if it registers an unsafe temperature.

The measures might sound extreme, but Maguire says there’s been little pushback from shoppers—no proudly unmasked, open-up-my-hair-salon customers here. Those who have been disappointed to learn they won’t be admitted without a mask are met with a compassionate explanation. “It might just be self-selecting,” Maguire says, “but I think the people that come in here are pretty fantastic and willing to learn.”

Plus, these are measures that have proven effective in Taiwan. Fung and his family are still there right now, where they feel safe thanks to the government’s response.

Speaking from recent shopping experience: A grocery run at United Noodles feels similarly safe. —Emily Cassel

Pete Skold Anna Racer, Waxwing Farm

Pete Skold Anna Racer, Waxwing Farm courtesy photo

Pete Skold, Waxwing Farm

Under the best circumstances, being a farmer is really, really hard. The job requires you to be a de facto botanist, meteorologist, economist, mechanic, and day laborer, among innumerable other skills.

For Pete Skold and Anna Racer, the husband-wife owners of Waxwing Farm, the ancient allure of working the earth was strong enough to pluck them from their city roots. Ten years later, Waxwing has blossomed into a booming Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) biz with some of the metro’s hippest restaurants—Spoon and Stable, Demi, and Hyacinth—as clients.

“We grow a little bit of everything,” Skold says from his 40-acre farm in Webster, about 40 minutes south of Minneapolis. “Starting soon, we’ll have leafy greens, garlic, scallions, radishes—you name it, we grow it for the most part.”

Keeping up with demand required Waxwing to cap its CSA membership, which accounts for about 70 percent of income, but that recently changed. With restaurant restrictions due to COVID-19 adding intense uncertainty to the other 30 percent of business, Skold and Racer hedged their bets by adding about 30 new members, putting the total at around 130.

“The demand has been kind of unprecedented,” Skold says. “People are concerned about their health and wanting to buy locally and direct as much as they can. We’ve always offered home delivery, so I think that’s been a big selling point for us.”

Restaurants remain a giant question mark. Timing and relationships might work in Waxwing’s favor; 2020’s first harvests coincide with loosening lockdown orders, and clientele has signaled commitments to keep buying that bounty. Spoon and Stable and Hyacinth are still on board, Skold says, and new partnerships keep forming, including one with north Minneapolis’s Bar Brava Natural Wine Bar.

“Restaurants could easily say, ‘Well, we’ve gotta tighten our belt, so we’ll buy the cheapest stuff we can,’” Skold says. “The restaurants that we have relationships with are not doing that.”

One of the trickier wrenches thrown at Waxwing during coronavirus? Schools shutting down, meaning Skold and Racers’ two kids, Harley and Margaret, require online schooling from the farm. Folks with desk jobs can more easily navigate work-from-home challenges, Skold says, but his days are spent toiling alongside his wife, one full-time employee, and a cast of part-timers in the fields.

“The regular wearing lots of different hats any small business owner does?” he says. “It’s just maximized, and it’s exhausting.”

But the determined millennial farmer says his family remains confident.

“Now it’s just figuring out what are the best practices for keeping all of our employees safe,” he says. “And when we do start delivering produce, how to maintain safety.” —Jay Boller

Noor Abdellaoui, Caribou Coffee

When she first started working at a Caribou Coffee in 2014, Noor Abdellaoui was “just looking for any job.” She found she liked the work, and grew close to her co-workers—first at a location in St. Paul, then one in Roseville, where she’s now a shift leader. People she met through work became a “second family.”

As coronavirus swept through the country and state, Abdellaoui started worrying about her first family: her two children and her immunocompromised mother. After staying home for two weeks, focusing on her home-bound kids and her own schoolwork at St. Catherine University, Abdellaoui found that her household missed the income. A few weeks ago, she went back to logging regular 7:30-noon shifts.

For now, her store prohibits walk-ins, and is drive-through only. She says sales have only dropped a little, if at all, which means a steady stream of cars for at least those first couple hours each morning. Abdellaoui’s noticed more group orders, with one person sent to pick up a half-dozen drinks. Some hold out their credit cards with a sanitizing wipe; others wipe down their drinks immediately.

“Our regulars are still very friendly with us,” Abdellaoui says. “Other people do seem a little more standoffish.”

Once her shift is over, she returns home to trade places with her husband, feeding the kids and helping with their homework while he leaves for work. He’s got a full-time job at a Whole Foods, so between the two of them, their household is doubly exposed to the general public.

“It’s definitely super stressful, and to have everything in our lives change in such a short period of time, too,” she says. “I think we’ve kind of compartmentalized. If you dwell on it too much, you really can’t function.”

With between two and four people behind the coffee bar at a time, any attempt to maintain distance is virtually impossible. Abdellaoui’s been using a homemade mask since returning to work—“my mom makes them”—but Caribou only started providing protective equipment in late April. Some Twin Cities workers have publicly criticized the coffee chain for failing to provide masks sooner, and not offering hazard pay during this time. Others have simply stayed home.

Abdellaoui hasn’t taken part in organizing and protesting around those issues, but supports the message. Her degree is in business administration, and she’s learning first-hand from her experience at Caribou how companies respond to a crisis.

“Successful companies should be able to do more for their employees,” Abdellaoui says. “Not taking care of your workers, it could really hurt the image of a company. I love Caribou, and don’t want to see that happen, but we’ll see.” —Mike Mullen

Noah Sprinkel, Eddington’s

Noah Sprinkel, Eddington’s Eddington’s Catering

Noah Sprinkel, Eddington’s

Known for feeding generations of downtown workers, soup and breadstick veterans Eddington’s had finally returned to the open arms of Minneapolis’s skyway in the Northstar Center after a two-and-a-half-year absence, and were again serving upwards of 170 folks a day. Winter is always their best season, and things were going gangbusters until about January, when coronavirus started popping up on Minnesota’s radar.

The hearty traffic they’d built petered to just 20 meals in a matter of days as the skyways became a ghost town. Every so often, Noah Sprinkel, son of co-owner Jeff Sprinkel, checks in on things, and they look pretty dismal. Across the hall, Subway is still open, mostly because corporate orders dictate as much, Noah says. Otherwise, the place is utterly dead.

As the pandemic picked up speed, Eddington’s was relegated back to its commissary kitchen in northeast Minneapolis, hoping to figure out who was hungry and how to feed them. They used to make vats of chili and chicken noodle every day. Now pretty much everything is made to order—if there are orders at all.

“I think we’ve had three or four [orders] in the past six or seven weeks,” Noah says.

The business isn’t resting on its laurels, though. There are still people who need to eat outside of the skyways.

Jeff Sprinkel also happens to also work at a nursing home in the metro area. Older adults—especially those living in care homes—have been by far the hardest hit by COVID-19. Of the 683 deaths reported statewide by the end of last week, 554 occurred in long-term care or assisted living facilities.

So Eddington’s has been providing some meals for the staff, just to take one more thing off their plates.

“It alleviates some of the stress,” Noah says. Anything they can do to make this easier is a worthwhile endeavor.

But they’re keeping the faith. The hope is that when things are ready to open back up, they’ll be able to get back where they were “before all this.” All Eddington’s can do for now is be patient. —Hannah Jones

Jo Herrera, Food Exchange

Jo Herrera, Food Exchange Jo Herrera

Jo Herrera and Inti Hirt, Food Exchange

As the pandemic picked up speed, Jo Herrera of Minneapolis was doing okay, all things considered. They could work from home. They were healthy. They had a car. They could hunker down and wait this out.

But they also knew a lot of people—even people in their Stevens Square neighborhood—who were going to have a harder time. So, a couple months back, when they were browsing a food-sharing group on Facebook, they struck up an interesting partnership.

Inti Hirt, who works at a co-op in Minneapolis, had four sizeable boxes of produce on her hands; two needed to be delivered to Northeast. She was offering the other two—full of good but slightly scuffed or dented produce they couldn’t sell—as payment for making the trip.

“I basically post once or twice a week,” says Hirt. The food would go to waste otherwise, and there’s usually someone out there willing to help out. This time, Herrera volunteered. They loaded the boxes into their car, and for the first time in a long time, left Stevens for other parts of the city.

Once Herrera dropped the goods on patrons’ doorsteps, they realized they had another problem. They were now the proud owner of two heaping boxes of fruits and vegetables—mushrooms, avocado, eggplants, kiwis, fresh-cut flowers—all good stuff, but a bounty they’d never be able to finish on their own.

So they put out feelers to their friends and neighbors. It turned out, a lot of them could use those extra veggies. With a little more driving, everybody had what they needed.

The second time Herrera went to fetch some boxes from Hirt, they took their errand to Facebook and Nextdoor asking if anyone—friend or stranger—could use a little extra fresh food at no cost. Of course, plenty of people could: folks who were out of work, too sick to leave their homes, or too at-risk to expose themselves to the virus were among the respondents. Herrera split the second load with seven different households, including their own.

They say a third load is already in the works.

“I know some people have found more official ways to do mutual aid,” says Herrera. But there’s something so satisfying, so immediate, about taking care of this themself. The nonprofits can have their money. Their neighbors—and their new network of hungry friends—can have their time and energy.

Herrera doesn’t expect they’ll stop anytime soon—nor does Hirt. People were going hungry even before the pandemic, and it’s likely they’ll continue to go hungry in the future. Whenever they’re needed, they’ll ride out again, bananas and oranges in tow. —Hannah Jones

Jared Isabella, Clancey’s Meat and Fish

Like a story pulled from the pages of Wild Rumpus’s stacks, just down a gently sloping street from the cozy bakers and artisanal tchotchke makers, toil the butchers of Clancey’s Meat and Fish—including Jared Isabella.

After a decade of drumming professionally (for Night Moves and others) and working as sous chef at Surdyk’s Bistro and Deli, Isabella ended up working back-of-house in one of the best butcher shops in town. “In a lot of kitchen situations, you don’t actually have to know how to butcher and take down animals.” As he explained, Clancey’s offered growth.

Since COVID-19 descended, Isabella’s duties haven’t changed significantly, even if scheduling in the shop has adjusted to meet the demands of the times, including switching exclusively to phone orders and curbside pickup.

“Everyone’s working slightly harder, but it’s been pretty fluid,” he explained. “We’re all grateful to be able to still be working.”

“Ten minutes ago I was breaking down a bunch of chickens for future orders,” he says, explaining the day’s workflow. “I have a guy that always comes in the morning and helps set up. He leaves early, and we have a dishwasher come in around when he’s leaving, to keep as small an amount of people we can in the store.”

Those chickens (not to mention weekly deliveries of lamb, beef, rabbit, goat, and non-protein products) have kept Isabella occupied. “We’re getting a little more [product] than we would be at this time of the year just because people are buying more volume,” he says, attributing customers’ willingness to bulk up a little more to the quality of meat—local, grass-fed, hormone-free—Clancey’s brings in.

“Our supply line is all within, like, 70 miles of each other, so we’re helping the farmer sell products,” he explains. “Because a bunch of restaurants are closing or shut down, we’re taking a little more product off [farmers’] hands to help them, and then we’ve been generally moving through it. So it’s like, everybody wins in that situation.”

And while summer feels canceled, grilling season is just around the corner. So even if business at Clancey’s stays at the curbside, Isabella notes that farm-fresh vegetables—ideal to supplement stocks, rendered fats, and those locally sourced eggs and milk that still line the refrigerators and freezer cases—will start rolling in any day now, which makes the shop close to a one-stop destination.(Their incredible sandwiches aside, Isabella says they don’t do bread.)

Pro that he is, Isabella offered a parting gift of advice: Look for the “bavette” cut for grilling, a shop favorite. “It’s like if a skirt steak and a flank steak had a baby, or were mashed together,” he said. With the graining of skirt and thickness of flank, it (and Isabella) could turn this summer around yet. —Sarah Brumble

The staff at Quang

The staff at Quang courtesy of Quang's

Sen Reed, Quang

This year was supposed to be something of a victory lap for Quang, the beloved Vietnamese joint that’s been holding it down on Eat Street since 1989.

Fresh off an extensive remodel, the Minneapolis restaurant that began across the street with just four tables finally had a gleaming homebase befitting its glorious pho. Business was steady, co-owner Sen Reed tells us, and her family had operations down to a science.

Then society came to a screeching halt.

Sensing the severity of the pandemic, Reed and her siblings shut down dine-in service before it was mandated, and made the painful decision to lay off their waitstaff. Now the newly overhauled space—which was actually designed to help streamline to-go traffic—functions as a takeout superhighway.

“[The remodel] has worked out in response to COVID, because it allows for three points of entry—one for customers, one for delivery drivers, one for exit-only,” Reed says.

Takeout business has been gradually getting “busier and busier,” she says, thanks in part to an army of regulars who keep ducking in to score spring rolls, pho, vermicelli noodle salads, bánh mì, and one of the city’s most underrated/massive chocolate chip cookies.

Reed reports her family is feeling that love.

Reed’s mom, Lung Tran, built Quang into an institution, one named after her late husband. Carrying on that legacy is paramount for the three generations that continue honoring her incredible recipes and work ethic.

“Minneapolis is so great about supporting small businesses, so that’s helped out a lot,” she says. “We are so grateful for all our customers.”

Quang has discovered ways to leverage that loyalty into charity. Customers are currently scooping up custom chopsticks and aprons, with the proceeds benefiting local food banks.

Reed, like all of us, hopes a return to something resembling pre-coronavirus normalcy isn’t far off. Her family wants to re-hire its staff ASAP, and continue to showcase the investment they made at 2719 Nicollet Ave. But coming back safely is more important than anything, she says.

“It’s been just a crazy time, but I think, with hope, we can definitely pull through,” Reed says. “It’s sad to see what restaurants look like right now, but I’m confident we can get back to normal.” —Jay Boller

Matty Tucker, Zen Box Izakaya

A bowl of ramen is a culinary time bomb.

Perfectly cooked noodles don’t last long once they’ve been added to broth; like a radioactive atom, the bowl is less and less stable (and delicious) from the moment it’s set down in front of you. Which is why, like many local ramen shops, Zen Box Izakaya has never offered theirs for takeout or delivery.

… Well, until now.

“That’s something we immediately compromised on,” says sous chef Matty Tucker. “That’s what people want from us. If we aren’t doing ramen, we kind of aren’t doing anything.”

It was one of many immediate COVID-19 changes for the downtown Minneapolis Japanese restaurant, though not the hardest. The first week Governor Walz ordered dining rooms to close, Zen Box cut its staff down to just three salaried people, who worked 12 hours a day and did what they could with what they had on hand.

“After the first week I was kind of like: If we’re going to keep doing this next week, I need to order food. Am I allowed to do that?”

A certain amount of adaptation is inherent to running a restaurant, but COVID has cranked up the rate at which those compromises and shifts have to be made. At first, ZenBox was open from 12 to 6 p.m., but without workers flocking to downtown office buildings their lunch rush slowed to a trickle. So they switched their hours to 4 to 8 p.m. They got a PPP loan—which is good! They want to pay their people! But it means that right now they’re almost overstaffed by design. And the loan was helpful, but forgiveness for it ends at the end of June (something restaurants are advocating for an extension on at a national level).

Tucker is quick to acknowledge that things could be worse, but the situation overall is… not ideal. “Our sales are around half of what they were,” he says. The latest executive order lets restaurants reopen on June 1, but Zen Box won’t be among those doing so. Looking at the dining room, they reason they can fit about five tables if they need to be six feet apart. That just wouldn’t be worth it. And sure, maybe restaurants can reopen—but what about office buildings? Would downtown workers return?

“We kind of sit down and talk about this every day,” Tucker says. “We’re starting to talk about how to reopen, what that’s going to be like, and we honestly don’t know.”

If you’re looking for those silver-lining moments, though, there’s also this story from Zen Box’s kitchen. The first few weeks restaurants were shut down, they made meals available on a pay-what-you-can basis. “We were all feeling very emotional that first week, and I was kind of like… we have a lot of food, can we just give our food away?”

The plan backfired, beautifully. While some people were paying less than the total bill, an awful lot of folks were chipping in more. It let the restaurant give away an estimated $2,774 worth of food to those who couldn’t pay the full price, and the surplus made up a bulk donation of meals to frontline healthcare workers at local hospitals. —Emily Cassel