At the beginning of 2020, chef Justin Sutherland was in a pretty good place.
He had completed a successful run on the career catapult that is Bravo’s “Top Chef,” had just started a new partnership with local restaurateur Brian Ingram, and had another television show scheduled to tape.
“I was coming off a strong 2019 and had a lot of things in the works for this year,” Sutherland said. “It was looking pretty bright.”
Then he, like everyone else in the hospitality industry, was hit by the global pandemic. Though his story is his own, the ups and downs, the terrible calamity and awesome humanity that Sutherland lived through are a great representation of what can probably be called the worst year in history for restaurants.
Justin Sutherland, right, works with bartender Spencer Short to stock tables with produce to be given away to the public at his Lowertown restaurant in St. Paul on March 19, 2020. Sutherland, the owner of Public Kitchen, has so much produce that he collected it all to pass out. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
Like so many of his peers, Sutherland was shocked when the first closures of restaurants and other businesses were announced.
“That day, for me personally, it was a very quick stages of grief I went through,” Sutherland said. “It was kind of a panic and trying to wrap my head around the situation.”
It was what he did next that set the stage for the rest of the year.
“It just quickly turned into calling to action all our chefs and industry people and that very quickly turned into turning Public Kitchen + Bar into a market for hospitality people who were suddenly out of work.”
Sutherland rallied local restaurants to bring in all the food that was sitting in their coolers and would likely go bad. Truckload upon truckload arrived. And the need was there. There were lines down the block for many days. Sutherland’s food truck offered free lunch. It was a heartwarming sight — chefs and restaurateurs who had suddenly lost so much doing the only thing they knew how to do: provide nourishment.
The Hope Breakfast Bar in St. Paul transitioned from being a restaurant to a community kitchen, serving meals to those in need. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
Other chefs would similarly put their skills and resources to work.
Chowgirls Catering and a slew of other restaurants and catering businesses founded Minnesota Central Kitchen, which uses “rescued food” from restaurants and food suppliers who are unable to use or sell it, to provide meals for the hungry. The organization employs cooks who might otherwise not have work while also satisfying the real needs of a growing group of people who cannot afford to feed their families.
Sutherland and his brother Jeremy also launched Feeding our Frontlines, in which they turned donations into meals for doctors and nurses caring for the increasing number of sick people.
Hope Breakfast Bar lived out its charitable mission by feeding everyone and anyone who needed a hot meal. During this second shutdown, owner Brian Ingram turned The Gnome, which opened this summer, into a food pantry for hospitality workers who suddenly needed it. Again.
And because two nonprofit groups weren’t enough, Sutherland and chef David Fhima launched The North Stands, which distributed donations to out-of-work hospitality employees.
“I’m not one to wallow, and I’m not one to not do anything,” Sutherland said. “I couldn’t sit home and cry about it … I saw glimpses of the magnitude this could be … I knew people in our industry day to day struggled with paying our bills before all of this. I knew those of us who were able were going to step up and help out. … We raised $80,000 that first round.”
The nonprofit has now partnered with local philanthropist Tony Sanneh and will be giving out hundreds of thousands of dollars to Black- and brown-owned restaurants to help them recover and rebuild.
It wasn’t just in feeding the community that Sutherland used his voice for this year.
When George Floyd was killed by police on camera in May and protests erupted, Sutherland was there, wielding a bullhorn or microphone, calling for change.
“It was a double punch, straight from pandemic shutdown to something we’ve all known has been going on, but hit a little closer to home for me,” Sutherland said. “It was a unique opportunity to step up in a different way, outside of the food scene. For whatever reason, I’ve been given a platform and whether you like me or not, some people might listen to me.”
Restaurants, many owned by people of color, were destroyed during the protests, and Sutherland and others are working hard to help them reopen.
Beer cheese ribs from Revolver Ribs, a ghost kitchen running out of the Hot Indian Foods space in Midtown Global Market. (Jess Fleming / Pioneer Press)
Through all of this, all restaurants continued to suffer.
Before outdoor dining was allowed to resume in June, takeout was the only revenue stream for eateries, many of which were doing it in volume for the first time.
Family-style meals became popular, and weary parents appreciated being able to pop a take-and-bake lasagna into the oven when everyone being at home all day was just too much.
In the summer of 2020, we were able to buy Mancini’s steaks and seasonings to grill at home. Chef Jamie Malone offered high-end cook-at-home kits out of the now-shuttered Grand Cafe (the kits are still being offered through her other restaurant, Eastside).
Meritage offered Au Bon Canard duck and foie gras for cooking at home.
You could order take-and-bake chicken Parmesan and a roll of toilet paper (remember the toilet paper shortages?) from Red Rabbit.
Ghost kitchens started popping up like tulips in the springtime, offering chefs a creative outlet during hard times.
The Minnesota State Fair was canceled, and in addition to food parades on the Fairgrounds, revelers had restaurants to turn to to get fair-themed bites. More than 20 restaurants and vendors across the metro responded promptly by coming up with special fair-inspired menus of all things deep-fried, on-a-stick and more around the time of what would have been the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
As for Sutherland, he did a little takeout operation out of Handsome Hog, but he was busy moving his flagship restaurant from Lowertown to Cathedral Hill, a move he was making because pre-pandemic, the Lowertown spot just didn’t have enough space to accommodate the demand for his southern-style cooking.
Keg and Case West 7th Market in St. Paul takes it outside July 9, 2020, with vendors as well as patio, greenspace and parking seating areas. (Nancy Ngo / Pioneer Press)
Although Sutherland sometimes second-guessed his decision to move Handsome Hog (“I liked that space, I liked the vibe, I liked how small it was.”), it turned out to be a good one.
He built a sprawling patio next to the space, which had been The Fitz most recently, and people came. It was pretty much the hottest reservation in town all summer.
“I made more during the summer with outdoor dining than I made all year during my best years at The Hog,” he said.
As it became clear that being outdoors was safer, people starved for hospitality filled any patio that had space for them. If there was space, restaurants expanded their outdoor seating.
Bad Weather Brewing added picnic tables instead of parking spaces. Keg and Case moved most of its operations outdoors. Stillwater shut down side streets so that restaurants could add outdoor seating. Hope Breakfast Bar and Cafe Astoria shut down tiny Leech Street so that people could enjoy their coffee and pancakes outdoors.
As the weather turned cold, though, many businesses were faced with the stark reality that takeout wasn’t going to sustain them.
And then Gov. Tim Walz announced a four-week “pause” on indoor dining, which has since been extended.
One after another, restaurants began to announce that they would “hibernate” for the winter in hopes of returning in the spring, when a vaccine might begin to take hold.
Sutherland was one of them.
“As of now, our goal is to reopen The Hog Feb. 1,” Sutherland said. “January is always the worst month of the year anyway.”
He’s looking into putting an ice bar on that fabulous patio and throwing a thoroughly Minnesota party, complete with a toast to 2021 and the hope that the change in one digit represents.
Nancy Ngo contributed to this report.
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