How COVID-19 will change Iowa’s restaurant scene forever

Ma Po Tofu dish from Heavenly Asian. (Photo submitted by Heavenly Asian)

Brenda Brehme cooks up gravy-smothered hot beef in her joint gas station and restaurant business, where she relies on hungry drivers to fuel up and chow down.

But lately at 6 Corners Gas & Grub, customers grabbing a bite or even a pack of cigarettes are becoming few and far between during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The local residents of Arlington, a town of 400, are trying to support her, but their carryout orders can’t make up for the lost profits that she would have made from people driving through on the nearby state highway.

“Business wasn’t the greatest as it was and it just made it that much worse,” Brehme said.

The outlook is grim for restaurants across Iowa

Now that the state has allowed limited reopening, Iowa restaurants are left with major decisions. Many owners said they’re committed to keeping the kitchen flames going. But their creativity and endurance will be tested as existing trends becoming glaring problems and COVID-19 pushes them to operate in ways they never have before.

Brehme’s restaurant is one of the hundreds of rural Iowa establishments that will bear the heaviest economic burden from COVID-19, according to the Iowa Restaurant Association. 

A hot beef plate from 6 Corner Gas & Grub in Arlington. (Photo by 6 Corner Gas & Grub)

Fayette County, where Brehme’s restaurant is at, was one of the 22 counties forced to remain closed until May 15, due to its COVID-19 rates.

Now that all Iowa restaurants will be allowed to open at 50% capacity, the concern isn’t anymore when they will open — it’s how long will they survive?

Iowa is entering a grim stage for its culinary scene, where projections show rural diners will be lost forever and the turnover of city storefronts will accelerate.

For up to 10% of Iowa restaurants, the economic toll of COVID-19 and the disruption it struck on their already-thin profit margins will not be a burden they can overcome, resulting in permanent closures, said Jessica Dunker, president of the Iowa Restaurant Association.

In 2018, Iowa had 6,285 eating and drinking establishments, according to the association. That means at least 600 of them will not endure because of the pandemic.

For April alone, Iowa restaurants lost $310 million in revenue. Individual restaurants reported an average of 70-90% lost profits.

Iowa restaurants already operate on an average profit margin of 5% or less. Restaurants will never be able to make up those lost dollars, resulting in permanent closures for the next five years, Dunker said.

“It’s almost breathtaking how bad it is,” Dunker said.

For Brehme, the harsh reality of those numbers have already been clear to her and her wallet.

She’s working from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. because she can’t afford to retain her staff. Zero profits are coming from the cafe side.

Rural restaurant owners in neighboring counties to her were allowed to reopen already, but they decided against it because even at 50% capacity, they said it’s just not worth it.

“It’s just really difficult and I don’t think the state of Iowa sees what is really going on out here,” Brehnme said.

Iowa’s dining scene was already changing. COVID-19 will accelerate that.

Prior to the pandemic, Iowa’s culinary scene was already changing across the state. 

In some ways, for the better — others, for worse.

In Arlington and other rural towns, depopulation has resulted in fewer job opportunities, fewer people and fewer dining establishments to stop at. 

One of Brehme’s workers left to take a job in Cedar Rapids and she can’t blame him. There were better benefits there, though it’s left her with more work and another job to eventually fill.

Meanwhile, cities like Des Moines have been undergoing a culinary renaissance as coastal restaurant owners and award-winning chefs set up shop in the affordable Midwest town. 

But other problems have plagued urban restaurants too, like profit-eating delivery services, which are certainly here to stay, and an oversaturated-market resulting in high restaurant turnover, Dunker said.

As COVID-19 adds unprecedented economic stressors to businesses, certain restaurants are most at risk of permanent closure, Dunker said. 

Family-owned restaurants; restaurants with multiple locations; rural locations and owners who may struggle to adapt to online demands are all vulnerable.

Des Moines residents will be surprised to see some popular restaurants close down in the years to come, but those empty storefronts will be rented again, Dunker said. 

That can’t be said for rural communities.

“It’s the places where you see the political candidates eating the tenderloin. The places that have the best rhubarb pie,” Dunker said. “Those are the places that may not be able to recover from this.”

Adapting to a new way of dining

Suzanne Summy already had to make the difficult decision to permanently close one of her restaurants, Trostel’s Dish.

For 15 years, the Clive restaurant brought cracker-crust pizzas and carefully plated tapas to the Des Moines area. But Summy, who owns legacy restaurant Trostel’s Greenbriar in Johnston, said COVID-19 “hastened” her decision to permanently shut its doors. 

The restaurant was on a month-to-month lease, making the decision easier as she faced a looming stack of bills.

A Sad But Thankful FarewellAfter nearly 15 years of having the pleasure of serving the wonderful people in the Greater…

Posted by Trostel's Dish on Tuesday, April 14, 2020

“We’re operating on very thin margins,” Summy said. “We were not able to sustain paying out the money.”

Now, she’s focusing on the viability of Trostel’s Greenbriar, a 33-year-old restaurant that’s been through economic turbulence before, but nothing quite like COVID-19.

The pains of the 2008 recession were gradual. 

A prime rib dish from Trostel’s Greenbriar in Johnston. (Photo submitted by Trostel’s Greenbriar)

But with the pandemic, “This was just ‘boom,’” Summy said. “Everything changed.”

Even though restaurants in Polk County are allowed to open, Summy said customers will be hesitant to go out and eat again, and rightfully so, she added.

Greenbriar had a strong carryout business prior to the pandemic, which she said has helped the restaurant stay afloat. 

She predicts to-go orders will continue to play a major role for Des Moines restaurants, but that isn’t sustainable some days. To stay open, her loyal clientele will need to continue ordering food, Summy said.

“Chain restaurants have deep pockets,” Summy said. “They can weather difficult situations but independent restaurants cannot.”

For Heavenly Asian in West Des Moines, serving a customer sea bass enveloped in Sichuan chili sauce does not have the same grandeur in a to-go box as it would in Shirley Burke’s meticulously decorated restaurant.

Shirley Burke sits in her restaurant, Heavenly Asian, with her parents. (Photo submitted by Heavenly Asian)

She has prided herself in serving food that’s authentic to China’s Gansu and Sichuan provinces, her hometown area. 

Burke opened her restaurant with the goal of educating Iowans through the best multicultural lesson — a meal.

Her focus on providing a dine-in experience, however, is all but thrown out the window now as many restaurants, including Burke’s, choose to remain carryout-only as a precaution against COVID-19.

“Yes, we are suffering, but when it comes to people’s lives or safety that’s what matters most,” Burke said. “Without people we wouldn’t have an economy.”

The new normal for the restaurant will never again resemble her bustling establishment before COVID-19, Burke said. It will take years to make up financial losses. 

Large gatherings, which Burke prided herself on, will most likely shift to small private parties or reservation-only seating when she feels comfortable opening her doors.

Some restaurants aren’t going to make it — Burke doesn’t even know if Heavenly Asian will survive the pandemic.

But maintaining people’s safety is her number one priority, she said. The restaurant has been entirely closed for the last few weeks out of precaution, but she plans on opening for carryout again next week.

“Everyday there’s restaurants that opened and everyday there’s restaurants that closed before COVID-19,” Burke said. “We just need to remember all we’re experiencing is just temporary.”

Dunker said restaurants will need to get creative and learn how to make up their profits quickly enough so they don’t continue to bleed.

For restaurants that do close, Dunker said the next generation of aspiring owners graduating from culinary schools like DMACC and Kirkwood Community College may take up the mantle and help fill future vacant storefronts.

She doesn’t see that happening in rural Iowa, however.

As for Brehme, she doesn’t know the future of her restaurant.

She knows the school districts are getting smaller and the jobs are going away.

Like the experts have said, Brehme predicts Iowa will see more rural restaurant owners choose to permanently shut their doors.

But if small towns lose their restaurants, Brehme said that only means more businesses will disappear too.

“We need something in the community to bring people here,” Brehme said. “We need something to keep the young ones here.”

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.