Zumbrota restaurants do more than just survive pandemic – Post Bulletin

ZUMBROTA — While restaurants have faced challenges during the past two years because of COVID-19, one town’s eateries have not just survived but thrived.

That town is Zumbrota.

And while restaurants there have faced the same issues as others — increased supply costs, labor shortages, and fallout over COVID — the city’s restaurants are still there, finding ways to keep the doors open for customers looking for a meal.

“Our hours are different,” said Shari Kothenbeutel, owner and manager of Covered Bridge Family Restaurant, the restaurant that was opened by her parents in 1976. “We’re closed two days a week, Monday and Tuesday, which we never used to do. But now that we’ve started the Monday-Tuesday thing, we like it.”

Kothenbeutel said when the pandemic began, and the first shutdown happened in March 2020, the family restaurant relied on, well, family to keep things going.

02 Zumbrota Restaurants - Covered Bridge Restaurant

A golf simulator occupies a portion of Covered Bridge Restaurant’s event space on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Zumbrota. Shari Kothenbeutel, owner and manager of the restaurant, said they recently installed the simulator to make better use of the space, which has sat vacant at times during the pandemic.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“During COVID, it was mainly our family working,” she said. She and her husband, and her kids all pitched in. Longtime workers, many of whom had other jobs, filled in from time to time, and the business remained open as it could until restrictions on dining out were lifted.

Not that the business hasn’t changed, at Covered Bridged and elsewhere.

A little different everywhere

“We have no staff,” said Bridget Rostad, owner of Bridget’s Café. “We have one manager and a couple of high school kids. We’re not having any luck with hiring.”

Still, business has been solid except for when the state closed all restaurants for indoor dining, essentially turning all restaurants into takeout eateries.

Rostad said her restaurant, despite a fairly sizable dining room, is still essentially a takeout spot.

“Maybe people got used to that,” she said. “But we’ve stayed pretty good. We came back pretty good after the lock down.”

At Coffee Mill Café across the street, owner Shane Jackson said he has also not adjusted his hours due to COVID-19, and he’s been fine with staff.

03 Zumbrota Restaurants - Covered Bridge Restaurant

A picturesque image of a golf course surrounds a portion of the event space at Covered Bridge Restaurant where they have installed a golf simulator on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Zumbrota. Shari Kothenbeutel, owner and manager of the restaurant, said they recently installed the simulator to make better use of the space, which has sat vacant at times during the pandemic.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

As for his customers, he said the locals who are the regular customers “don’t really care” about the pandemic, so they keep coming out to eat.

“It’s way different than in the big cities,” Jackson said.

Rostad said the biggest changes have been getting supplies that seemed basic before the pandemic. To-go containers for food or soup are hard to come by. And juices — particularly orange juice — is hard to keep in stock.

Other items just cost more.

At Covered Bridge Family Restaurant, Kothenbeutel said one big change has been the number of large groups.

As the only locally owned, non-franchise restaurant in town that is regularly open nights, Covered Bridge used to host large groups in its expanded dining area that seats more than 100 people. But since the pandemic, Kothenbeutel said, those parties have pretty much disappeared.

04 Zumbrota Restaurants - Covered Bridge Restaurant

Barbie Holst, with Covered Bridge Restaurant, prints a customer’s tab on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, at the restaurant in Zumbrota.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Instead, the restaurant has repurposed the space with an indoor golf simulator to attract those duffers looking to practice their swings during the long winter.

“We have a lot of golfers around,” she said. “A lot of these people drove to Rochester for a simulator, and now they can just drive across town.”

While she was able to make a big change, some little things are seemingly beyond her control, Kothenbeutel said.

“Right now, I can’t get the cheese sauce I’ve used forever,” she said. “There are different cheese sauces, but it’s not the same.”

Another supply issue, she said, is the cost of bone-in chicken wings. The price of a 15-pound box is more than double the pre-COVID cost, and that cost increase has to be passed on to the customers.

“We didn’t know, with soy beans being used for fuel, if we’d get fryer oil,” Kothenbeutel said. “That was the big scare last summer. We didn’t think we’d have deep-fried food.”

Despite these troubles …

Zumbrota Commmunity Development Director Dylan Armstead said that despite the troubles in the restaurant industry — or perhaps because of the staying power of Zumbrota’s restaurants — the city is in talks to bring in more national chains.

That’s on top of the many options already available from a handful of locally owned cafés and restaurants to nearly as many fast-food chains, and even a Chinese restaurant.

“One of the things we’re working on in community development is more restaurants,” Armstead said. “We’re waiting on an offer from another (restaurant).”

The demand, he said, stems in a large part from the 40,000 cars a day that pass through Zumbrota. While three-fourths of those are on U.S. Highway 52, many travel right through the heart of town on Minnesota Highway 58, which is Main Street in Zumbrota.

That and a third decade in a row with double-digit percentage growth in population shows how Zumbrota is a growing community, Armstead said.

06 Zumbrota Restaurants - Java Junction Cafe

Java Junction Cafe on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Zumbrota.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

All of this traffic helped keep every restaurant but one open through the pandemic. Pizza Kabin closed because of a staffing shortage, Armstead said, and the owners have indicated they plan to reopen after winter.

In fact, the loss of the pizza restaurant was taken up by Java Junction, a coffee stop that features a menu of sandwiches, wraps, soups and salads.

Shelly Luhmann, who owns Zumbrota’s newest restaurant with husband Todd Luhmann and friends Julie and Ray Wingert, said initially they were concerned about finding employees. But, if anything, they don’t have enough hours to go around right now.

“It was a very scary venture,” Luhmann said. “But I think we’re going well.”

The friends had never owned a restaurant before, but took the plunge after Todd Luhmann and Ray Wingert spotted the building right off Highway 52 and the roundabout. That chance sighting meant Zumbrota’s restaurant options were again plentiful.

“(They) were out on a drive one day and saw this building and said wouldn’t that make a good coffee shop,” Shelly Luhmann said.

05 Zumbrota Restaurants - Covered Bridge Restaurant

Covered Bridge Restaurant on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Zumbrota.

Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

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