Through shutdowns and restrictions, local restaurants get creative

On Monday, Minnesotans will be able to dine in at their favorite restaurants again. But through the pandemic, some establishments have been shaking things up to keep customers coming back

Through shutdowns and restrictions, local restaurants get creative

MANKATO, Minn. (KEYC) - On a cold, cloudy January day, leave it to Minnesotans to enjoy the outdoors.

“We’re celebrating my birthday,” said MSU-Mankato junior Courtney Hellman, who rang in age 21 on Thursday bundled up in a hat, coat and mittens on the back patio of The 507 with seven of her friends.

At the downtown Mankato bar and restaurant, staff has curated a comfortable setting to help patrons celebrate life’s milestones in a safe and fun way.

“They have a really nice set-up,” Oriana Johnson, friend of Hellman and Minnesota native, said. “The heaters are really nice. It’s actually really warm for it being 30 degrees out.”

In the kitchen, it’s hot, too. Residents might recognize the guy behind the grill from a popular Hilltop food truck. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Alberto Lara now takes his talents indoors.

“We knew each other from the gym and just kind of hanging out,” general manager Isaiah Pitchford said of Lara. “We became pretty good friends, and then we were just talking about ways to kind of push both of our careers forward, and then we went with the ghost kitchen.”

Alberto’s Kitchen: Think of your classic bar food guilty pleasures, with a twist.

“I wanted to do something that’s fun, that’s appealing,” Lara said, “That has like the taste of a five-star restaurant, but the simplicity of a taco truck.”

He’s one of a litany of additions the restaurant has implemented to keep customers coming back.

“Just things that are constantly changing and keeping people on their toes that continuously keeps us in the conversation,” Pitchford said.

For months, customers have been barred from indoor dining. So Lara and Pitchford bring their creations to them through social media. It’s a pursuit they attribute to their success.

“And then on top of that, I mean, his food kind of sells itself,” Pitchford said.

On Monday, staff at The 507 will welcome the community back into their restaurant. As one of many downtown eateries, the next step, Pitchford says, requires the help of everyone.

“The biggest thing, with being on this strip down here, staying open until 2 a.m. is huge for business,” he said. “We want to be able to do it safely. So that goes for everyone out in the community, to the college kids, to the staff, to us as owners and managers. We need to make sure that everyone’s being safe, so we can get back to that point where we can stay open until 2.”

Pitchford says the pandemic friendly adjustments -- the winter outdoor dining, the igloos, the heat lamps -- will stay. Customer say they’ll continue to enjoy them.

“I think it’s fun to get bundled up, get a hat on, come sit out and enjoy outside,” Johnson said. “I would for sure keep doing it.”

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