Hardwick restaurant struggles to stay afloat
Weekends typically bring crowds and welcome business to the Green Lantern Cafe and Bar in Hardwick.
But on Saturday, only a handful of customers entered the business, picked up their take-out orders and went home.
Under state order, small business owners like Steve and Linda DeSplinter have removed the cafe’s traditional tables and chairs to keep people from lingering and they locked the entrance to the bar area.
Revenue is down to a trickle, but it’s their only option, other than to close entirely
A state executive order closed bars, restaurants and other places of public accommodations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by 5 p.m., March 17.
Last week the state order was extended for the third time and now is slated to expire Sunday, May 17.
“It’s been a struggle,” Steve said. “We appreciate Hardwick all the time — they come in and still get food — they respect we can’t open the doors with the state officials telling us not to.”
The March closure order came just as the couple was to celebrate their second year as owners of the longtime business mainstay in Hardwick. The DeSplinters had spent the past year remodeling the building and had postponed a grand opening celebration until this year.
The couple’s efforts have not gone unnoticed.
Tom Haas, Hardwick resident and city council member, picked up an order Saturday for his family of four. “We just appreciate that you’re open,” he told Steve.
Haas is not the only one showing support to the DeSplinters.
“I went to CHS to pay my bill and I was told someone paid $200 on my account and said, ‘They wanted to see the doors stay open,’” Linda said. “Others have ordered a meal for themselves and left a $100 bill on the counter and said ‘Keep it; we need you open.’”
Creditors have deferred loan payments and suppliers have relaxed minimum order requirements as additional ways to help the struggling bar and restaurant business.
“It’s overwhelming, to say the least, and it’s hard to fight back the tears some days,” said Linda, who is now operating the Green Lantern alone.
In the seven weeks since the state order took effect, Green Lantern’s employees received furloughs and the six-days-a-week business was reduced to the current 15 hours spread over four days.
The reduced hours of operation means reduced revenue potential, and the governor’s order last week means the DeSplinters will have to wait longer and think of how they are going to recover lost business.
“I was mad. I was sad. I was anxiety-ridden,” Linda admitted. “All I could think of was — this executive order should not have been “one size fits all.” As we are finding out now, our economy is suffering.”
The Green Lantern on Main Street Hardwick has separate rooms for the cafe, bar, kitchen, steakhouse and game room.
“We’ve always said this place is way too big,” Steve said. “No one uses the game room.”
Recently the backroom steakhouse was remodeled into a large party room, and its availability was generating local interest. The room was initiated on March 7 with a surprise 80th birthday party for a local resident.
“The next week we were supposed to have a big 50th wedding anniversary in the steakhouse — that didn’t happen,” Linda said. “We had the room booked for a graduation party on May 23 — that’s not going to happen, but it may at a later date.”
The DeSplinters contend that the square footage of their business means they could meet social distancing guidelines and limit crowd sizes using the available rooms. Operating guidelines were recently implemented at bars and restaurants just across the border in South Dakota to operate with reduced occupants instead of being forced to only provide take-out orders.
“If anyone thinks that running just a curbside business and off-sale in a small community like Hardwick is going to pay the bills, think again,” Linda said.
“It’s not Minneapolis. It’s not Mankato. Don’t get me wrong; people’s health is of the utmost importance. They should practice stay-at-home if needed.”
Since the closure order, the DeSplinters have stepped up regular cleanings of counters and doorknobs between take-out customers. They feel they could safely operate differently if given the chance.
“We miss our customers. We miss our employees. We miss our ‘families,’” Linda said. “We are looking forward to getting back to normal. However, the definition of normal will no longer be what we were once used to, due to this pandemic.”
Keeping the small establishment atmosphere
When the DeSplinters officially purchased the Green Lantern March 18, 2019, they understood they were continuing a decades-long tradition for the community. Only the post office and grain elevator have carried the same longevity in Hardwick.
The couple moved to an acreage between Hardwick and Jasper in 1991.
“The Green Lantern has been our ‘go-to’ bar for many years,” Linda said. “We remember all the owners — Babe and Kitty, Merle and Marv, Q-ball and Joe, Carrie, Mark and Ryan and, last, J.R. — we have had a lot of good times up there.”
A celebration of ownership was delayed until the couple finished upgrading and remodeling the two-story building that will eventually include a new roof. Linda recently received an economic development grant from the city of Hardwick that allowed a more energy-efficient heating and cooling unit for the business.
The decision to stay open means Linda’s dream of operating a small business is also still alive.
She previously owned the former Jake’s Coffee Shop in Luverne, an 18-month venture that was taken on after spending several years working for local restaurants and bars.
She has spent the last 14 years working as a claims examiner for Avera Health Plans before last year’s sale of the Green Lantern brought her goals back into focus.
“It’s been a dream to own my own business,” she said. “I’ve worked hard on a business plan, worked out the numbers and decided we could make this work as long as Steve remained employed full time at Billion’s. We knew there would be struggles, hard work, a lot of sweat, tears and fights, of course. … little did we know a year into it we would be up for the biggest challenge, COVID-19.”
If a positive element was to come out of overcoming the COVID-19 challenge, it would be the opportunity to move forward with a planned convenience store in the café portion of the Green Lantern.
“This was in the original business plan, but would come at a later time,” Linda said. “Now that time is here I think the community would appreciate a local store instead of driving out of town for a couple basic items.”