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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The hits keep on coming for the people in the industry hardest hit by COVID-19.

Restaurant workers make up the biggest pool on unemployment applicants, and it’s unclear when the industry will be able to operate as usual. WCCO’s Susan-Elizabeth Littlefied goes to three Twin Cities restaurants to see how they’re coping in our new series, “Waiting Tables.”

Leo’s is a 50s-style malt shop in Stillwater that at 10 a.m. could be mistaken for a doctor’s office, as employees have to take and log their temperature. Cory Buettner is the owner.

“We know that everybody is susceptible to this, we are trying to keep as many people as safe as possible from this,” Buettner said.

The Stillwater staple is trying to hold itself together.

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“March 17th we shut down, and we had to drastically change the way we do business,” Buettner said.

Their flagship malts now come pre-packaged to reduce exposure, and their service is curbside delivery or takeout only, including burgers, chicken, pulled pork and hot dogs.

Their entire business model has flipped; emotions have turned upside down, too.

“It certainly has been a stressful situation. I mean, the unknown, you know, what is next,” Buettner said. “Are some of our staff gonna get the coronavirus? Is it going to affect us personally?”

Since switching gears, Leo’s is operating at about 50% its typical year-to-date business. They have 19 employees working instead of 45, with half of Buettner’s staff is choosing not to work — but he’s making it work.

“I’m planning on operating this exact same model for the next month,” he said. “I just see that that’s the way Minnesota is going.”

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In downtown Minneapolis, Luke Shimp — owner of six Red Cow and Red Rabbit restaurants — is also feeling the strain, amidst another quiet lunch hour.

“The first couple of weeks, we were losing like $45,000 a week,” Shimp said.

But he says that’s not the hardest part.

“Part of what I love to do is being an employer. I love hiring people, and to know that we had to, you know, take away that livelihood for folks, and that security, was really hard emotionally,” Shimp said.

And it’s been hard logistically. Before COVID-19, 3% was takeout and delivery. Now, it’s 100%.

“Having to pivot real quick and figure out how and make your core competency takeout has been really hard and stressful,” Shimp said.

His restaurants are producing about 25% of their typical business, and 60 of his 400 employees still have jobs.

READ MORE: How Twin Cities Restaurants Are Safely Providing Takeout Food

Over at PinKU Japanese Street, food sales are down, but not too far down. Xiaoteng Huang is the owner.

“I would say the last 30 days have been a pleasant surprise,” Huang said.

After getting the COVID-19 news, the owner say he panicked and closed the store, but started experimenting with takeout delivery only.

“We went from being closed and laying off the whole team, to calling everyone back within a week,” Huang said.

PinKU is operating at about 60% of their regular business, some days are 100%. They are at full staff and hiring four to five more.

“Easter, we had record sales, and that was definitely not anticipated,” Huang said. “So it’s been a good few weeks, definitely something new for us.”

And as restaurant owners fight to stay afloat, they all agree that those they have served are now serving them.

“Whether it’s ordering more than they normally do, or giving us extra tips to give to the employees, people have come out and support us, and that is something that we had never imagined, and that has made our lives easier,” Huang said.

Shimp says about 30% of sales during normal times are because of alcohol. He is hoping legislation would allow him to sells so he could include wine and beer in takeout packs.

RELATED: Restaurants, Lawmakers Pressing Gov. Walz To Allow Alcohol-To-Go

Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield

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