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St. Paul restaurants were hurting. Here’s how people like you helped.

11March 2021

We often get asked from readers what the best ways are to support local restaurants during the pandemic.

So we decided to go straight to the source and ask restaurateurs to share their stories of acts of kindness from customers that not only have lifted up their businesses, but their spirits too.

Additionally, as we near the one-year mark of state-ordered shutdowns and restrictions of restaurants during the pandemic, we asked chefs and restaurateurs what community members can do to offer support going forth.

Here’s what they said:

NINA’S COFFEE CAFE

June Berkowitz, owner of Nina’s Coffee Cafe in St. Paul. (Courtesy of Nina’s Coffee Cafe)

Staff came to me and asked for us to reopen. It was expressed by employees that we are the light, the beacon, the great good place, the corner coffee shop, community gathering place. We made a plan together so they would feel safe working. Many employees were very clear about their desire to be here for people.

We offer takeout for both call-in or inside and have a vestibule window open if people don’t want to come in. We also have about one-third capacity inside seating.

Customers have been so thankful and express it often. There are sometimes tears, too, of how thankful they are that we are open. Tips have been generous. We get flowers delivered to us on occasion.

We’ve received an up to $5,000 match from an anonymous customer. We have collected over half the match so far. We are now reaching out to our customers through the shop to raise the rest.

— June Berkowitz, owner, Nina’s Coffee Cafe (165 Western Ave., St. Paul; 651-292-9816; ninascoffeecafe.com)

TOMMIE’S PIZZA

Tommie Daye, chef/owner, of Tommie’s Pizza in St. Paul, March 2, 2021. (Nancy Ngo / Pioneer Press)

During the pandemic, my regulars have been loyal. They come no matter what. They come on some of the coldest days, snowstorms, blizzards…I’m very fortunate. I would like to say to our customers that we love them as much as they love us being here. We know them by name just as they know us by name. It’s just a good situation here as far as I’m concerned.

If anyone is looking for a way to support local businesses, I would say just show up. Just go into that smaller neighborhood place, buy their products and support local.

— Tommie Daye, chef/owner, Tommie’s Pizza (1556 Selby Ave ., St. Paul; 651-432-4743; tommiespizza.com)

SAKURA

Miyoko Omori, owner of Sakura in St. Paul, March 3, 2021. (Nancy Ngo / Pioneer Press)

We’re doing fine now but we were almost not doing well. That was in December. My friend saw that I was going through a tough time in December and she said she has seen other people start GoFundMe campaigns for other restaurants. I felt guilty. She said it’s okay, you can ask for help when you need it.

We’re doing fine now and we’re probably good until mid-June if things go the way they should. Hopefully, things open up more and there will be more activities downtown

If people ask me how they can help going forward, I’d say buy a gift card. That makes me feel better. That way I don’t feel like I’m getting 100 percent free stuff. That way I can trade it in. I’ve tried to give gift cards to people who bring money to me, some won’t allow it. They say they just want us to stay open. Others say they know I’m a proud person and understand where I’m coming from, so they’ll take a gift card versus give money.

I want to thank all of my guests that are helping me so much. I can’t thank you enough for everyone’s support. It’s been a tough year. They tell us they’re grateful for us. And we’re grateful for them.

— Miyoko Omori, owner, Sakura (350 St. Peter St., St. Paul; 651-224-0185; sakurastpaul.com)

TILLIE’S FARMHOUSE

Sept. 2017 photo of Tom and Kari Grittner, co-owners of Tillie’s Farmhouse in St. Paul. (Pioneer Press / Nancy Ngo)

We had two couples who would come to dinner every Friday night before the pandemic. We knew what they liked and always had special treats for them. After the pandemic, they continued with their weekly orders, always leaving a very generous tip. In times when we wonder if we are making a difference in guests’ lives, this weekly order reminds us that we are.

We had a couple come in to dine during the late summer. They were in town visiting their son at the University of St. Thomas. They stayed a long time and ordered quite a bit of food “just because they wanted to try it and it kept getting better.” Two to three months later, I received a call that their son was graduating and they asked if I would cater a small celebratory brunch. They remembered the food and hospitality and wanted to recreate that for their son. We had some difficulty finding a socially distanced space, but we made it work. It was such an encouragement and privilege to be a part of this special event.

— Kari Grittner, owner, Tillie’s Farmhouse (232 N. Cleveland Ave., St. Paul; 651-645-8950; tilliesfarmhouse.com)

BOCA CHICA RESTAURANTE Y CANTINA/BOCA CHICA’S TACO  HOUSE

Jose Frias of Boca Chica in St. Paul, Feb. 13, 2020. (Nancy Ngo / Pioneer Press)

Customers, our neighborhood and our local businesses have been such a part of our ability to get through this pandemic. Our loyal customers flocked to purchase gift cards for friends and family to show support for our family business. These customers have been such a part of our success. During the last shutdown in November/December a group of parents from a youth baseball program I coach organized and ordered from us weekly, both for their families and for business purposes, just to show their support. When I found out about this gesture it was very emotional for me, personally. I’ve been coaching for years and sometimes wonder if I am making the right impact within the community and this act of kindness really made me feel good at a time when I was really struggling. The list goes on and on and I do thank all of our customers, friends, family and the community for their continued support.

— Jose Frias, owner, Boca Chica Restaurante y Cantina (11 Cesar Chavez St., St. Paul; 651-222-8499; bocachicarestaurant.com and Boca Chica’s Taco House (407 Wabasha St S., St. Paul; 651-222-8226; tacohouse.net)

BLACK DOG CAFE LOWERTOWN

Stacy Remke, Sara Remke and Andy Remke, owners of Black Dog Cafe in St. Paul’s Lowertown. (Courtesy of Tom Dunn Photography / Black Dog Cafe)

We have had some amazing acts of generosity. One person gave us their entire stimulus relief check in May of 2020. People sent us checks asking us to buy meals for others. It has been amazing. There is a building across the street that orders takeout as a group one time per month.

Our cooks have organized among themselves to be sure they each get hours and three of them split two jobs. As difficult as this has been, people have been very supportive and kind. We are truly humbled by the generosity shown by our customers.

I think going forward, it’s important to support the places you love. If that means getting dessert or a latte, takeout, dinner or any meal, it all helps. We are far from out of this and each act of support is tremendously felt.

— Sara Remke, owner, Black Dog Cafe Lowertown (308 East Prince St., St. Paul; 651-228-9274; blackdogstpaul.com)

MOJO MONKEY DONUTS

Lisa Clark, owner of Mojo Monkey Donuts in St. Paul, photographed Nov. 16, 2017. (Nancy Ngo/ Pioneer Press)

We have had so many acts of kindness since the pandemic began. We would not have made it to 2021 if it were not for our amazing and loyal supporters. We have a few people who have ordered every single weekend without fail since the pandemic began. We are also very grateful to all the regulars that order as much as possible whenever they can. We all know their names and they are part of the Mojo family. Although they probably do not know it, the staff loves seeing their names every week. I would give all their names, as I know them by heart, but that might invade their privacy.

There have been other acts of kindness, such as when a regular who was not able to have her birthday party as planned purchased donuts for every customer that came into the shop that weekend! She wanted to give us extra support and spread a little cheer at the same time. There was a woman from New York who purchased donuts and had them delivered to all the staff of a local hospital. She has never been to Minnesota. She read an article on us and just wanted to support us with a donation.

Last, of course, we are grateful for all the Mojo regulars. It has oddly brought us comfort in this turbulent year. With everything up in the air every day, having this constant has really brought us peace of mind. We appreciate them now more than ever.

— Lisa Clark, chef/owner, Mojo Monkey Donuts (1169 W. Seventh St., St. Paul; 651-224-0142; mojomonkey.biz)

MARGAUX’S TABLE

Margaret Doran, chef/owner, Margaux’s Table in White Bear Lake. (Courtesy of Margaux’s Table)

What stands out most for me is that my customers have been very loyal about coming to support Margaux. Many of them come every week. Plus, current customers have been passing the word on to others letting them know how unusually good my carry out is. It is packaged so that it can be reheated without losing its integrity.

Another thing that has helped Margaux is my landlord is graceful about broken up payments when I have a slower period. I have also had tremendous support from Brad Atkinson, the owner of Anchor Coffee House. We have a symbiotic relationship sharing the same space. He uses the space during the day with the coffee shop and I use the space in the evening for Margaux’s Table for dinners and private in-house events, although Margaux is only available for takeout at this time.

Brad and I have said we couldn’t get through this without support from one another.

— Margaret Doran, chef/owner, Margaux’s Table (4742 Washington Square, White Bear Lake; 651-387-7903; margauxstablewbl.com)

DOWNTOWNER WOODFIRE GRILL/BURGER MOE’S

Moe Sharif, owner of Downtowner Woodfire Grill and Burger Moe’s, both in St. Paul. (Courtesy of Moe Sharif)

The Downtowner Woodfire Grill and Burger Moe’s like so many local restaurants have felt the effects of this pandemic. Our staff at both of our restaurants have been blessed to have a wonderful community who go above and beyond to show their support. During this pandemic, we have noticed that our guests are excited to return to enjoy a meal out with family, old friends, or colleagues, not having had the opportunity to be face to face in many months. It seems that our customers now take time to slow down and enjoy being together.

The beauty of American history that has stood out to me is how during challenging times, ingenuity and generosity shine. We are seeing this daily as our diners support us by purchasing gift cards, leaving a few extra dollars, or just a simple comment that they are grateful to be back and enjoy their favorite meal at their favorite restaurant. This pandemic has given us all time to slow down and reflect on what is most important and for the Downtowner Woodfire Grill and Burger Moe’s, it is our wonderful staff, the great city of St. Paul, and most importantly our amazing customers.

— Moe Sharif, owner, Downtowner Woodfire Grill (253 West 7th St., St. Paul; 651-228-9500; downtownerwoodfire.com) and Burger Moe’s (242 West 7th St.; St. Paul; 651-222-3100; burgermoes.com)

LUCI ANCORA

The acts of kindness during this pandemic have been innumerable and unending. All our customers have given us encouragement, empathy and accolades to keep us going. They have been loyal patronizers of the takeaway/curbside and completely generous with our staff. Gratuity has been extraordinary. We have had guests pay forward for products and services and purchase gift certificates in sizable numbers. We had one restaurateur patron, who also has been impacted by the pandemic closures, offer his product that he could not use (thank you, Tim Mahoney). We have many supportive and understanding vendors. Our very small staff have been prodigious in assisting the business in every way possible. It has given us, our staff and family, hope, inspiration and a sense of worth. Yes, the pandemic has brought on tribulation, a sense of despondency, grief, and yet, strangely, it has brought out amazing acts of benevolence and a deeper sense of gratitude.

— Maria Gans, general manager, Luci Ancora (2060 Randolph Ave., St. Paul; 651-698-6889; luciancora.com)

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