Willmar restaurants beginning to bounce back since outside dining allowed

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Patio tables and chairs sit out in front of Jake's Pizza in Willmar for dine-in service Thursday evening. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — Local restaurants are happy with the partial reopening this week after months of government shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tanya Olson, who owns Jake’s Pizza in Willmar with her husband, Ben, said they had a pretty good turnout Monday, the first day of outdoor dining, despite the day’s temperature being in the high 90s.

“It was really surprising and it was nice to see the community come out and support us,” Olson said. “It’s been really good for us.”

That sentiment was echoed by Bailey Swanson, manager at Sunray Square Cafe & Deli in Willmar.

“We’re picking up a little bit and we’re getting back into the swing of things,” Swanson said. “We’ve had good feedback from our customers on it, saying that they enjoy it and being outside and just being able to come back and enjoy our service."


Restaurants, bars and many other businesses that fall under the category of "places of public accommodation" have been shuttered by executive order since March 17 to mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19. Curbside, delivery or take-out was allowed to continue.

Following that order, both restaurants had to lay off or take employees off the schedule due to decreased business.

Despite both restaurants receiving at least some money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, the money wasn’t enough to keep all of their staff members at the number of hours they were working prior to the closure.

Ben Olson said Jake’s Pizza only received about 6% of what the business might have gotten, but a year-long shutdown from March 2019 to March 2020 for a remodeling project affected the amount of money for which the business was eligible.

Implemented to aid small businesses hurt by the pandemic, the Paycheck Protection Program instead benefited some large companies. National Public Radio reported that large chain restaurants, including, for example, Shake Shack, initially received millions of dollars from the program before returning the money.

Ben Olson said the money Jake’s Pizza received from the program all went to try and keep employees on the payroll.

The prior order from Gov. Tim Walz, which went into effect June 1, keeps restaurants at a maximum of 50 customers and requires all employees to wear face masks and gloves, while only allowing outside dining.

Walz's new order , announced Friday and effective June 10, allows restaurants to have a 50% indoor seating capacity, capped at 250, and outside capacity will be increased to 250. Masks remain required for employees and strongly encouraged for customers.


Both Tanya Olson and Swanson said their employees are following the safety guidelines and keeping their outside seating in accordance with social distancing requirements.

Swanson said they have been sanitizing tables before and after their customers come in.

“We have dedicated servers for each table so we’re not cross-tabling and we’re doing to-go boxes for outside so that it can get thrown away right away after,” Swanson said. “Once (employees) bring something out, it has to stay out or it gets thrown away because we can’t reuse it.”

The outside dining requirement implemented June 1 came as a shock to many in the restaurant industry who had expected a greater loosening of restrictions, and required businesses to work with local city officials to get exceptions to allow seating on the street.

Across Minnesota, the outside dining requirement has turned small town Main Street into scenes reminiscent of European cities, with more foot traffic and smaller roadways, as opposed to storefront after storefront to which Americans are more accustomed.

While local restaurants are starting to bounce back, the chance of having to shut down dining services again due to another outbreak may be the death knell for them. The governor and his administration have cautioned that the "turning of the dials" to loosen restrictions could go the other way if circumstances require.

“We would have to cut out employees again,” Swanson said. “I guess I feel like right now, it’s make it or break it with us reopening.”


Mark Wasson has been a public safety reporter with Post Bulletin since May 2022. Previously, he worked as a general assignment reporter in the southwest metro and as a public safety reporter in Willmar, Minn. Readers can reach Mark at
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