New restaurants open in Saint Paul as industry hopes for rebound

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It’s been a tough two years for the hospitality industry, from closures to restrictions to new waves of COVID cases. As spring and summer approach, however, there is hope for business to pick up.

“We want to get out and enjoy a meal again and get back to normalcy,” Brianna Le said.

Le is the CEO and co-owner of Em Que Viet, a new Vietnamese restaurant opening in Saint Paul. The family business moved into a former bookstore on Grand Avenue.

“It was a blank slate that we could make our own,” Le said. “It was perfect for us.”

Em Que Viet should open its doors this spring. It’s an extension of a legacy that began in northeast Minneapolis. Her husband’s family opened Que Viet in 1980.

“We’re actually the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in Minnesota,” Le said. “Vietnamese was not a popular cuisine, so [my mother-in-law] do what everyone else was doing. She made a lot of Vietnamese dishes, a lot of stir-fries, and then her spring rolls were what really caught on, and everyone loved it.

Their imperial rolls have become a Minnesota State Fair favorite.

The Grand Avenue restaurant will offer these famous spring rolls and baked goods similar to those found at the original location.

Le explained that they will also be expanding Que Viet’s menu with new recipes.

“We’re trying to be more Vietnamese, which is what my mother-in-law wanted to do, and we’re able to do that now because everyone’s taste buds have grown so much,” Le said. “We’re excited for everyone to try the new flavors we have. We are delighted that everyone is in this space.

Em Que Viet is one of many new restaurants opening in Saint Paul.

Service began in Momento, which replaced downtown Pazzaluna, about two weeks ago.

“This is one of six restaurants that have opened in the last few weeks or so,” Saint Paul Downtown Alliance President Joe Spencer said from a table at Momento. “There are a few more to come.”

Spencer says there has been renewed momentum downtown over the past two months, with events resuming at the Xcel Energy Center and in theaters. Workers have also started returning to downtown offices.

“From last spring through summer, until August really, we were doing well and recovering really pretty well,” Spencer said. “But then in October, November, [with] Delta then Omicron, it was really not what we had hoped for and delayed this return for several months more than we would have liked… We are really happy to finally have the wind in our sails.

According to Spencer, the pandemic has cost the city about 10%, or 30 to 35, of its storefront businesses. He said about 10 companies have now returned.

“It’s been a great two months, and it’s going to continue to pick up speed, I think, over the next 45 days,” Spencer said.

The restaurant industry still faces challenges. A recent survey from Hospitality Minnesota shows that about half of restaurant and catering businesses statewide do not expect to return to normal until 2023.

“We also hear about half of them continue to worry about insolvency or bankruptcy in the next six to 12 months,” said Ben Wogsland, executive vice president of Hospitality Minnesota.

According to the survey, about 66% of restaurants also incurred an average debt of $552,659 due to COVID.

“That’s a pretty big debt for a small or medium business or a restaurant here in Minnesota,” Wogsland said.

He also pointed out that restaurants are facing rising food prices and labor shortages.

“I think the common thing is that everyone lacks everything,” Le told Em Que Viet. “The prices of everything are even shocking to me.”

She explained that the price of spring roll wrappers has gone from $30 per case before the pandemic to $140 per case. They also struggled to find employees for the new restaurant, despite advertised hiring bonuses.

“It was difficult,” she said. “We did everything from paid job offers, which we spent a lot of money on – more than I expected. We made the free ones on Facebook. We did word of mouth. We have done everything. We put on a job fair, and the numbers that are showing just aren’t there.

Despite the challenges the restaurants are facing, Le is excited about the future of his restaurant and the industry as a whole in the Twin Cities.

“I think especially recently with the new places that seem to be ready to open, I think we’re all seeing that we’re excited,” she said.

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