MINNESOTA, USA — When Minnesota Governor Tim Walz announced new COVID-19 restrictions on social gatherings and a one month pause on in-person dining last week, several restaurants quickly began promoting special Thanksgiving menus in anticipation that more Minnesotans would be looking for small, catered meal options close to home.
Days later, demand has exceeded expectations.
"The response has been overwhelming," said chef Wendy Puckett, owner of Wendy's House of Soul on Glenwood Ave. in North Minneapolis. "Literally, we had to shut it down. I want to feed as many people as I can but, there's only one me."
"It is much larger than I anticipated for a tiny little restaurant," said Heather Asbury, owner of Heather's restaurant on Chicago Ave. in South Minneapolis. "People could order turkeys, turkey breasts, mashed potatoes, stuffing, the whole dinner, in any amount that they wanted. Unfortunately we did sell out."
For Heather's, the boost couldn't have come at a more critical time. Asbury opened the restaurant in March, just before restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms. She says the business survived thanks to neighborhood support and a strong patio season.
"This building had sat vacant for 16 years and the neighborhood really wanted something, so they've been really supportive in coming out and making sure we stay here," Asbury said. "Everyone has been very kind and generous with us so it's been okay ... challenging, but okay."
Puckett says challenging is one of many words used to describe 2020 for Wendy's House of Soul.
"I've been happy, sad, angry, frustrated, grateful, blessed beyond measure," she said. "There's so many emotions that go through this year for me."
In the midst of the pandemic, Puckett lost the lease for her location on Broadway in North Minneapolis. Instead of giving up, she found a new space on Glenwood Avenue and she put her faith in her customers and community.
"The reception has been great," Puckett said. "Even my customers from Broadway have followed us over here."
Even so, neither Puckett nor Asbury expected the kind of demand they've seen for Thanksgiving meals.
"We're getting creative to meet demand," Asbury said. "We've got a refrigerated truck and we have all staff on deck for the week, getting ready to package and get all the orders ready. We're doing something like 47 gallons of gravy, which is just hard to wrap your brain around."
Puckett made the tough decision to close down her restaurant on Wednesday, just to catch up in the kitchen ahead of Thursday.
"There was a lot of people who wanted to donate meals and accommodate other families and that's what we're working on right now," Puckett said. "I want to make sure that all the orders are complete for families, so I would rather take a hit with the business being closed, versus not being able to provide Thanksgiving dinner for a lot of families that need it."
It's their way of repaying the favor at a time that's difficult for everyone.
"I'm just so grateful that we get to make an impact on people's lives," Asbury said. "A lot of single people, elderly people at home who are coming to get the Thanksgiving dinner, that are really happy that they're able to celebrate this year. It's been really emotional and wonderful."
"It's amazing because there's a lot of people that don't have this opportunity right now that have had to close their businesses and that breaks my heart," Puckett said. "I know how hard it is to be in a business like this and you have to love it and have the passion for it. So to lose it, your passion, is very difficult. I'm just grateful."
Grateful, and hopeful, that they, and other small businesses, will be able to give thanks again next year.
"With the continued support of the neighborhood, we'll hopefully be okay," Asbury said.
"Please support any local, small business," Puckett said. "Anything that you can possibly do. Donate a dollar, send a prayer, a high five, a fist bump. Some of those things are just needed every day. We've got to support each other."