Pandemic-inspired ideas evolve into promising fixtures for North Mankato bars

When Governor Tim Walz announced a two-week shutdown for Minnesota bars and restaurants in March 2020, businesses scrambled to reimagine the way they served the public.

At that time, no one could have believed the shutdown and subsequent capacity restrictions would last more than a year.  But even more surprising, perhaps, was that ideas born out of a necessity to survive the pandemic would become a lasting fixture for businesses.

“I think our curbside is going to be big indefinitely,” said Wade Becker, the owner of Big Dog Sports Cafe in North Mankato.  “I’m almost hoping…forever,” he confessed.

Curbside pickup was adopted by many restaurants at the start of the shutdown. Becker said Big Dog improved the concept as the pandemic wore on.  The Upper North bar started by improving its to-go box.  Customers can pay for their fare over the phone, so the transaction is already complete when they arrive.  They park in a designated spot to wait for their order and staff brings it directly to the vehicle.

In Lower North, Circle Inn Bar focused on frozen food orders during the shutdown.  Owner Jeni Bobholz said the bar currently has more than 100 cases of items ready to be picked up by customers. “That’s kind of its own little monster now,” she says. The bar also put together creative ideas that were a big hit with customers, such as advent calendar-inspired promotions, like the craft beer sampler for Father’s Day.

Bobholz said the bar will expand patio seating, adding far more square footage to the business, which means more staff will be needed to serve the outdoors area.  But Bobholz will also expand into the food truck business.  Her mobile venture is called The Pelican, named after a regular customer.  She has events booked as early as June.

According to Bobholz, the Circle Inn has never had more people on the payroll.  Yet, she says she could use more help, with the multiple facets of the business.  Additional people are needed on each shift, and staffing the patio is something that wasn’t a factor pre-pandemic.  The bar is getting applicants, but, not as many as there could be. “It’s becoming a different kind of challenging now,” says Bobholz.

Back at Big Dog, Becker says the staff is set for the immediate future, and he doesn’t foresee any problems looking even six months down the road. In fact, Becker said it was his staff’s brainstorming that got the bar through the challenges of the pandemic.  “It was way more than just me,” he laughed.  “I can hardly take any credit.  It was the staff.”

If a pandemic can’t knock these businesses out, there’s probably little else that can.

Big Dog Sports Cafe hours are currently Sunday – Tuesday, closing at 11 p.m.; Wednesday – Saturday closing at midnight.

Circle Inn Bar is currently serving Wednesday – Saturday

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