Minneapolis restaurant owner Kim Bartmann's employees await missing paychecks

Kim Bartmann, pictured seated at her Barbette restaurant, says some employees have taken her up on the invitation to reach out directly.

Kim Bartmann, pictured seated at her Barbette restaurant, says some employees have taken her up on the invitation to reach out directly. Jeff Wheeler

Kim Bartmann had decided to temporarily close her restaurants even before Gov. Tim Walz announced a mandatory halt to food service outside pick-up, drive-thru, and delivery. 

On Thursday, the news for Bartmann's employees got worse. Not only were they out of work, but they weren't getting paid for the previous week. In an email, Bartmann blamed a "sudden, steep drop" in sales the previous weekend, as people increasingly stayed home to stop the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).

"Nonetheless," Bartmann wrote, "I feel ashamed and I have a heavy heart knowing how tough it is for everyone right now, even without this latest setback."

Bartmann, whose email shared stories of setbacks she'd experienced in her career in restaurants, told employees she was "doing everything I can to make it right," and encouraged those upset to "send swear words and anger" to her own email address. 

Bartmann, who has received national recognition for sustainability, owns seven restaurants in Minneapolis, including Barbette, Pat's Tap, Book Club, and Tiny Diner in south Minneapolis, and Red Stag Supperclub in Northeast. (An eighth, The Bird, closed in February; Bartmann sold Bryant Lake Bowl in late 2018.) 

Speaking Monday, Bartmann estimated 190 people would've received the email informing them they wouldn't be paid on Friday, and that the situation hasn't changed since she wrote it. The same email said the restaurant group was "trying to honor any un-cashed checks from the previous pay period." 

Bartmann says her business had been "struggling," but that her restuarants were "going a lot better than they had in a while" earlier this month, before the widespread acceptance of social distancing and self-quarantine. 

Bartmann says the coronavirus "absolutely presents an existential threat to every business in Minneapolis, maybe except the ones that are public... or have a very deep ability to get capital." Walz's executive order went into effect at 5 p.m. on St. Patrick's Day, with an initial end date of 5 p.m. March 27.

Only one of Bartmann's restaurants, Barbette, is currently open, with a limited menu available for curbside pick-up, or delivery through Bitesquad or Doordash. Bartmann says "five or six" people are working there, and will be paid as usual. She is considering opening a second restaurant under similar circumstances, and is also exploring prepared "meal kits" as a potential revenue stream.

"We're thinking about what the next rational steps are to increase income with a very tiny band of people so we can keep working -- to try to become financially viable and earn the money to pay that payroll."

Bartmann spent Sunday night filing paperwork for a "disaster assistance loan" from the federal Small Business Administration, which offers up to $2 million in low-interest financing for businesses unable to pay their debts.

"That would hopefully get our payroll paid off, first of all," she says. 

She also supports allowing restaurants to sell alcohol as part of takeout or delivery orders. A petittion to that effect has received more than 11,000 signatures online. Last week, Walz acknowledged a "strong online presence" around the issue, and said he's "looking at trying" to allow those sales.

To-go sales would be a boon to the struggling restaurant industry, Bartmann noted, and could also be safer than customers crowding together in liquor stores. 

"The retail lobby isn't going to like that [idea] very much," she says, "but it doesn't have to be permanent." 

Bartmann says some employees have taken her up on the invitation to reach her directly. Some people have contacted her to offer "condolences, or encouragement." Others are angry.

"It's been conversations with different people," she says. "I don't know what I can tell you for a soundbite. It's a complicated and emotional situation."