ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — New help for restaurants was on the menu when U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar visited Alexandria, Minn., Wednesday, April 7.
The senator stopped at Pike and Pint Grill to hear from the restaurant owner, Kent Kopp, as well as La Ferme chef/owner Matthew Jensen.
Klobuchar supports the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a new grant program that provides additional aid for restaurants through the U.S. Small Business Association.
Both Pike and Pint and La Ferme struggled through hard times during the pandemic. Kopp told Klobuchar there were times when he didn't know if the restaurant would be able to survive its sixth year. He said they faced a financial crisis twice but federal funding helped them through it. He added he was one of the fortunate ones because across the country, 120,000 restaurants closed for good.
"And 70,000 (restaurant) employees were lost in Minnesota," Klobuchar said.
Kent said his biggest disappointment during the pandemic was that the federal government wasn't prepared to provide financial assistance more quickly. He said the mechanism to help restaurants and other businesses should have already been in place instead of getting bogged down in politics.
Jensen said the pandemic was devastating for smaller restaurants. He said La Ferme lost $175,000 in revenue last year, almost half of its business.
Now, customers are coming back in such good numbers it's hard to keep up, Jensen said, because they don't have the staff to handle it. La Ferme's take-out business has been a saving grace, according to Jensen.
"We're grateful for our to-go business," he said. "And allowing alcohol sales was huge. Customers are able to get wine that goes with their food."
Jensen said that the second round of funding through the Payroll Protection Program bridged the restaurant's financial gap. "It was my first moment of seeing a light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
Jensen said going forward, the government should have financial assistance in place to help restaurants. "That would alleviate a lot of stress," he told Klobuchar.
Both Kent and Jensen told Klobuchar about another problem restaurants face: finding and retaining employees. Klobuchar said that affordable housing is key.
Alexandria Mayor Bobbie Osterberg, who also attended Klobuchar's visit, said Alexandria is close to meeting its housing goals and has many new apartment buildings, but affordability is still an issue.
When Klobuchar asked Osterberg how Alexandria was doing during the pandemic, Osterberg said the city will never be the same but added it was inspiring to see the creativity and collaboration that developed because of it. "That was a very positive part of the whole experience — the ideas that came together," she said.
Osterberg said federal assistance during the pandemic was appreciated but there were problems with how it was executed at the beginning.
Nicole Fernholz, director of the Alexandria Area Economic Development Commission, filled Klobuchar in on how local businesses got through the pandemic. She said the need for assistance outstripped the funds that were available. Area businesses requested $8 million in funds but only about $4.4 million was allocated, about half of it to bars and restaurants.
Fernholz said the commission worked with restaurants to help them offer outdoor seating, patios and food pick-up.
Osterberg said there are still parts of Douglas County without any broadband. She said faster, more reliable internet is crucial for the local economy.
"It's a need — a got-to-have, not a want-to-have," Osterberg told Klobuchar.
Klobuchar, who has supported several broadband initiatives over the years, said she's heard many examples of how spotty broadband service is in the state. A Battle Lake student, she said, had to take her biology exams in a liquor store parking lot.
Fernholz said the area is fortunate to have Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association, which has aggressively pursued grants to increase broadband service. The need now, she said, is overcoming the shortage of fiber-optic cable to place underground.