Dinkytown restaurants adapt — or falter — in the face of the pandemic

The pandemic has changed the face of Dinkytown restaurants, but many business owners say they’re looking to the future.

Alison Kirwin, owner of Al’s Breakfast, poses for a portrait in front of the restaurant in Dinkytown on Wednesday, July 1.

Audrey Rauth

Alison Kirwin, owner of Al’s Breakfast, poses for a portrait in front of the restaurant in Dinkytown on Wednesday, July 1.

Caitlin Anderson

The restaurant landscape of Dinkytown has shifted dramatically in recent months while contending with a pandemic-strained economy.

With businesses across Minneapolis seeing financial burden from a market stricken by COVID-19, Dinkytown restaurants have faced unique struggles amid the closure of the University of Minnesota campus. Some new restaurants have popped up — like Pho Mai — and some have closed — like Erbert and Gerbert’s. Meanwhile, some initiatives have worked to keep iconic Dinkytown mainstays afloat.

Owners of open businesses say they are somewhat worried but are mostly looking toward the future.

“We’re excited because we’re doing pretty good considering the circumstance,” said Michael Bui, co-owner of Pho Mai. “Whether there’s a pandemic or whether it’s just regular day-to-day, people are gonna come back here.”

Bui said that Pho Mai, a Vietnamese restaurant located where Tim Horton’s recently stood on 14th Avenue Southeast, was initially supposed to open in March. The restaurant opened officially at the end of May, but it immediately needed to board up due to concerns about riots following the police killing of George Floyd. 

A former employee of Al’s Breakfast started a fundraiser to help cover the longtime staple’s rent and wages, said owner Alison Kirwin. So far, donations have exceeded $2,500. 

Sales are currently running between 20% to 25% of what they normally would be at this time, she said.

“There’s really no way that we can socially distance inside Al’s and have it make any physical sense,” Kirwin said. “It’s pretty much off the table for us right now.”

The 14-seat restaurant recently added a staff meal special to the menu — a $50 meal for two — which has been popular with customers. Some patrons have also bought prepaid tabs to use at a later date. These have helped with operating costs, Kirwin said.

“Our regular customers have really stepped up to the plate and helped us through donations and continuing to make takeout orders,” Kirwin said.

Erbert and Gerbert’s under Sydney Hall has permanently closed, representatives with the restaurant confirmed. Reasons for the closure include the pandemic and the absence of students on campus, which the location heavily relied on, they said in an email to the Minnesota Daily.

Wonders Ice Cream has remained dark and empty since the start of spring semester. The ice cream shop, which came to Dinkytown in 2018, currently has multiple locations across the metro and in other states. One of its restaurants in Eden Prairie was evicted in January, according to a report by Southwest News Media. But other locations have reopened following the state’s easing of restrictions — including its headquarters on University Avenue in St. Paul.

It is unclear whether the location will reopen. The Dinkytown Wonders Facebook page has since been removed from public access. Wonders’ representatives have not responded to repeated requests for comment. 

Avocadish, which serves avocado-themed dishes and is located in the new University Food Hall under Sydney Hall, opened last week. Alex Varouhas, founder of Avocadish and a University of Minnesota alum, said the restaurant was supposed to open earlier in June, but due to the civil unrest, it “didn’t feel right” to do so.

“To open the doors [now] feels really good,” he said. “We imagine it’s gonna be a pretty slow summer, but we are just looking forward to … serving the local people that are sticking around the town.”