“Leading Through the Pandemic” is a series focused on Twin Cities leaders and their reflections on the year of living during a pandemic and leading their teams into new ways of working.

In April 2021, we spoke with six Twin Cities leaders from various sectors – health care, independent business, nonprofit organizations, and education and religious institutions – about their experiences in decision-making, staff management and service to their audiences, patients and members during the last year of COVID-19 and civil unrest. Without a doubt, 2020 tossed countless challenges at any semblance of stability, but the topsy-turvy year also inspired these leaders’ renewed hopes for a more sustainable future, one they might not have imagined without first grappling with so much unexpected turbulence.

Tim Niver

Tim Niver is the current owner and operator of three Twin Cities restaurants and Mucci’s Frozen Pizza, and has spent his entire career devoted to service. Niver has lived with his family in many cities and worked at a variety of different eateries, including Smith and Wollensky in New York and the Bellagio in Las Vegas. In the Twin Cities, he’s brought his talents to Town Talk Diner, The Strip Club, Saint Dinette, Mucci’s Italian and Trattoria Mucci.

In his own words, he describes the many quick and hard decisions he has had to make over the last year in a restaurant industry riddled by challenges, and the undeniable reality that the pandemic has given us all a chance to reform how we practice business and live a better quality of life. 

HOW AM I GOING TO MANAGE MY RESTAURANTS DURING A PANDEMIC?

My team and I met almost two weeks before the closures began. We discussed what we thought would be a 3-week closure (based on Europe, at the time). Our game plan was to get as “financially skinny” as soon as possible.  The unknowns continued to be more vast than we had expected. As a team, we made decisions in the best interest of our people. We tried to be kinder and gentler, and tried to take care of each other. We started with a lot of communication. I spent nights up late reading. It couldn’t be about sales. It was as fundamental as, “How can we keep our staff on?”  

Tim Niver’s restaurants: Mucci’s in Saint Paul on the left; Trattoria Mucci in Minneapolis on the right.

STARTS. STOPS. PIVOTS. 

At the onset of the COVID-19 Shelter in Place order, we adapted quickly to to-go only concepts. It was more of a stretch than we thought, and we were working through it moment by moment. It was business triage, and we were on our heels for a few weeks. After those initial weeks, we decided to define short periods of time as menu pivot points: 30- and 45-day runs of new and different menus. This gave us some definition and control that the uncertainty of the pandemic couldn’t. We all wanted to know the future, but since that seemed impossible, we carved out our own calendar. We also lived by the motto, “No Rules.” Some people say no before they even consider a risk, and I asked people to think without boundaries, to put ideas up on the table and push the thought process, and to be fun and innovative within these constraints. And we did. 

When George Floyd was killed, everything changed again. I wasn’t worried about my business surviving. Everything, both business and personal, stopped immediately. It all switched over to a period of deep sadness, anger, fear and disappointment. We closed for 10 days. I sent my staff home so they could process and get involved however they wanted.   

AN INDUSTRY HURTING

Saint Dinette’s business dropped 80% and sustained that drop for eight of the 12 months. We went from approximately 70 staff on payroll before March 2020 to about 22 now. Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans through the Small Business Administration (SBA) were extremely effective for us, though the eightmonth wait for the second round was harrowing. Without PPP, we would be gone, done.  

The effects of the pandemic on our industry were not just local, but global. While we were running compact and smarter, the cost of food increased, and we had to decide to raise our prices. We had to add heavily to our paper usage with all the takeout. And we were determined to protect our employees and our customers. We managed the restaurants conservatively in terms of safety and COVID-19 exposure. We had a responsibility to not be the delivery vehicle for the virus. 

RETURNING TO, BUT REDEFINING, OUR PURPOSE

We are all vaccinated and looking ahead. Currently, all three restaurants are open for in-room dining, with limited hours that will expand. We are pushing our old existence out of the way. We had a wounded life going into COVID-19. Now we have a chance to take back our quality of life. Fundamentally, we will shift to a more tenable schedule, redefining our purpose and taking back the time our industry has demanded in past years. We must instill sustainability into our work. 

Saint Dinette’s website heralds the restaurant’s reopening to in-person diners in spring 2021. 

I (we) have reformed how I (we) will practice business and how I (we) will practice life. I always lean on those closest to me. However, as a leader, you often stand alone in your thoughts, as ultimately leading is actively a push or pull you do on your own.  

If, as a leader, you don’t take this moment to pivot to where you want to be, it will be hard to find your way out of this. I’ve had many moments to really stew, trying to define what is actually important. What’s really important for my people? Can I make it right? We will continue to be a place to trust, that literally serves an honest experience, where servers are happy, and the process that goes into each individual experience is right. 

Here’s the deal: When you work with people every day as I do in this business, I made sure my days off were always quiet. But now that we’ve done a year of quiet, I crave small talk. I crave civility and manners between people. I want ours to be a place where people of all types can have access to each other again, where people can come in to talk and refurbish a culture of togetherness.  

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Looking for inspiring, culturally rich dishes to make in your home kitchen? Look no further than our food and culture series Relish, with episodes that revolve around local chefs’ culinary heritage and recipes you can make without stepping out your front door.

As part of the “Leadership Through the Pandemic” series, writer Pamela McClanahan also interviewed Dr. Roli Dwivedi, who is an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and Community Health, and Chief Clinical Officer at the Community-University Health Care Center at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Dwivedi discusses the challenges of meeting patient needs during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, how her teams embraced a blend of in-person, online and hybrid medical visits, and how they mobilized testing and vaccination efforts in communities with low levels of trust in the medical industry. 

George Floyd’s police killing has brought together communities in a show of resilience – but it’s also revealed deep-seated racial inequities in access to healthy food now that the Lake Street area, where many grocery stores were damaged or destroyed, has become a food desert. Data Reporter Kyeland Jackson examines how that lack of food access is actually rooted in racism-charged issues related to access to jobs and opportunities to build wealth.