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Progress A magazine by the Perham Focus

Surviving COVID-19 How Perham businesses have adapted during the pandemic

students for the rest of their educational futu and other teacher supports, including Connect4Learning, an engaging curriculum that and problem solve with one another. This curric preparing our students for the rest of their educatio


Heart of the Lakes Elementary - Our new Action an active environment that makes learning fun f healthy and active movement. Students are enjoyi with fun and unique movements while prepari Teachers are enjoying students that are more focu


We continue to make strides in PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT Prairie Wind Middle School - The completion o preparing students for the rest of their educational throughPreschool our Kids futures Adventure - We continue strides connection in preparing PMWSto andmake subsequent to the new PHS Kids Adventure Preschool We continue to make strides in preparing curriculum and other teacher students for the rest of their educational futures tothrough curriculum be exposed a wider our variety of educational spac supports, including ourrestnew students for the of supports, their educational futuresour through our curriculum and other teacher including new not available to them up tocurriculum, this point. In addition Perham High School: curriculum, Connect4Learning, and other teacher supports, including our new curriculum, Perhamstudents, Highthat School provides engaging curriculum allows students to an Connect4Learning, engaging curriculumanthat the newer facilities explore also boast a mor flexible education opportunities for all Connect4Learning, an engaging curriculum that allows students to explore allows students to explore and and problem solve with one another. This curriculum and other supports are learning environment. students. Our state of the art high school problem solve with onesolve another. and problem with onerest another. This curriculum and other provides flexibility for instructional styles, supports are preparing our students for the of their educational careers. This curriculum and other supports are inside outside of the classroom, that strive preparing our students for the rest ofand their educational careers. preparing our students for the rest of to meet the ever-changing opportunities their educational careers. our students PHS, -students Perhamhave. HighAt School The variety of large and sm receive a comprehensive education in in aprovides Heart of the Lakes Elementary new Action Based Learning Lab Kids Adventure Preschool --Our We continue to make strides preparing new high school facility have provided our team an careerAction path of their choice. They also have Heart of the Lakes Elementary Our new Based Learning Lab provides an active environment thatofmakes fun for students, while promoting students for the rest their learning educational futures through our curriculum Kids Adventure Preschool We continue to multiple opportunities to mobile be involved witheducation delivery opportunity to be in our an active environment that makes learning fun foractivities students, while promoting extracurricular where they can healthy active movement. Students are enjoying getting their "wiggles" out and and other teacher supports, including our new curriculum, students forhave the helped rest ofwith their newexcellence spaces the educational expansion offutu ou strive and learn valuable life healthy and active movement. Students arefor enjoying getting their "wiggles" out withConnect4Learning, fun and unique movements while preparing their brains for learning. an engaging curriculum that allows students to explore and other teacher supports, including programs, such as Jacket lv'lanufacturing and Pro S lessons like responsibility, and being part with fun problem andenjoying unique movements while preparing their brains for supports learning. are of a team. Infocused partnership with our to other Teachers are students thatanother. are more and ready learn. and solve with one This curriculum and other Connect4Learning, an engaging curriculum that schools andmore the community at large, our goal is Teachers are enjoying students that are focused and ready to learn. Heart of the Lakes preparing our students for the rest of their educational careers. and problem with one another. This curric to develop confident studentssolve who believe Elementary: in themselves and theirour abilities as they preparing students for the rest of their educatio Our continued work with PBIS (Positive Learning enter thePerham workforceArea or extend their Center - Our new ALC fa Behavior Support System) has Prairie Wind Middle School - Theeducation completion of tech theand remodeling projectin at through schools, new options advancements technology t been enhanced with additional Heart ofsubsequent the Lakes Elementary - completion Our new Action Based Learning Lab provides Prairie Wind Middle School - Theto of the remodeling project at universities, or colleges. PMWS and connection the new PHS, has allowed our students to years. Being connected to PHS gives our stud supports in our students’ social/ an and active that makes learning fun forLakes students, while promoting PMWS subsequent connection to the newspaces PHS, has allowed our students to new Action Heart of the Elementary - were Our be exposed toenvironment a wider variety experiences that emotional learning using the of educational flexibility inand terms of available classes. The new sp healthy movement. Students are enjoying getting their out fun fo be exposed toprogram. widerup variety of point. educational spaces experiences that were active environment that "wiggles" makes learning Second Stepand Students not available toaactive them to this Inan addition toand providing more space to learning, and the spacious roomsfor provide great and staff are working to promote fun and unique while preparing their brains for learning. not with available them up tomovements thisalso point. In addition tocomfortable, providing more space for are enjoyin healthy and active movement. Students Prairie Wind Middle School: theto newer facilities boast a more multi-faceted astudents, learning community that isstudents Our school is committed to providing Teachers are enjoying that are more focused and ready to learn. students, the newer facilities also boast a more comfortable, multi-faceted with fun and unique movements while preparin learning environment. empathetic, flexible, persistent, students the best education with environment. Teachers are enjoying students that are more focus resilient, learning and optimistic. These Jacket highly-qualified and dedicated staff who Best traits engage and make for model for our students a true commitment joyful independent learners. to what it takes to be successful and out Prairie Wind Middle completion of thein remodeling Perham High School - TheSchool variety-ofThe large and small collaboration spacesproject in the at of school. In addition to academic learning and Perham High School The variety of large and small collaboration spaces in the to and subsequent connection to the new PHS, has allowed our students newPMWS high school facility have provided our team and our students with the WindweMiddle o physicalPrairie development, want our School students - The completion new high school facility have provided team and our students with the toour appreciate the benefits of treating other be exposed to a wider of educational spaces and experiences that opportunity to be mobile invariety our education delivery throughout the day. The PMWS and subsequent connection towere the new PHS people the way that they wish to be day. treated. opportunity to beto mobile in education delivery throughout the The available them with upour to this point. In toa providing more for newnot spaces have helped the expansion ofaddition our Career Tech Education be exposed to wider variety of space educational spac We askof ourour students to make a Education choice every new spaces have helped with the expansion Career Tech students, the newer facilities alsodayboast a more comfortable, multi-faceted programs, such as Jacket lv'lanufacturing and Pro Start Courses. not them this point. In addition to Beavailable Kind, Help to Others, andup Be to a Good Perham Area programs, such as Jacket lv'lanufacturing and Courses. learning environment. Learning Center: Person andPro try Start to the weave these three core also boast a more students, newer facilities Our ALC facility offers staff and ideals into the fabric of our school community. learning environment. students considerable options and We are all different on the outside, but inside we advancements technology the same dreams, offers and aspirations. Perham in Area Learning Centerhave - Our new hopes, ALC facility staff and students Perham High School - The variety of large and small collaboration spaces in the to which many schools do not Perham Area Learning Center Our new ALC facility offers staff Everyone deserves respect. Everyone new options and advancements in technology that we haven't and had students in many havenew access. Being connected deserves to be heard. Everyone deserves new high school facility have provided our team and our students with options and advancements technology that we haven't had in the many ingives Perham High School - The variety of large and sma years. Being connected to PHS our students new opportunities and to Perham High School gives our a education good education..and everyone needs the day. The opportunity to be mobile in our delivery throughout years. Being connected to PHS gives our students new opportunities and new high school facility have provided students abundant opportunities flexibility in terms of available classes. The new space is much more conduciveour team an to feel like they matter! new spaces have helped with the expansion of our Career Tech Education and flexibility flexibility in terms of core in terms ofspacious availablerooms classes. The new space much more conducive opportunity toisbe mobile in our education delivery to learning, and the provide greater learning opportunities. classes, elective courses, and programs, such Jacket rooms lv'lanufacturing Prolearning Start to learning, and theas spacious provide greater opportunities. newand spaces haveCourses. helped with the expansion of our extracurricular activities. The programs, such as Jacket lv'lanufacturing and Pro S environment at the Perham Area Learning Center is conducive to LEARN MORE ON OUR WEBSITE learning and the pursuit of Perham Area Learning Center - Our new ALC facility offers staff and students graduation for all students.






2 | PROGRESS 2021

new options and advancements in technology that we haven't had in many Perham Area Learning Center - Our new ALC fa years. Being connected to PHS gives our students new opportunities and new options and advancements in technology t flexibility in terms of available classes.years. The new space is much more conducive Being connected to PHS gives our stud PUBLIC SCHOOL DISTRICT to learning, and the spacious rooms provide greater learning opportunities. �flexibility � The new sp in terms of available classes. �o ®[M�lfin)§@Ju@@�§o@



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ITOW Veterans Museum HACA Art & Events Gallery 805 W. Main Perham

¥ Perham Pioneer Village

3/4 Mile N of Main St. on Co. Hwy. 8 (Open Seasonally)

¥ History Museum & Historical Society of EOTC 230 1st Ave. N. Perham, MN 56573

(This is also our mailing address)

¥ Business Office:

218-346-7678 Email: shirley@itowmuseum.org

For the latest event or rental info see www.facebook.com/ historyartsculture

Uniting Humanities, Art, Community & Culture This organization is supported by a grant from the Lake Region Arts Council through a Minnesota State Legislative appropriation.

PROGRESS 2021 | 3

Editor's Note The coronavirus. The pandemic. COVID-19. Social distancing. These are all words or terms that no one was using, or had even heard of, before 2020. Today, by MARIE JOHNSON it seems they’re all we talk about. Ever since the virus started making waves in the United States late last winter, it has impacted every facet of our lives: Businesses have faced shutdowns and revenue losses. Schools have had to shut their doors and shift their learning models. Healthcare centers have been thrown a whirlwind of safety regulations, and grappled with nearcapacity patient loads. Community events have been cancelled or scaled way back. Zoom meetings are a new norm. Socially, it’s isolating. We’ve all been staying home a lot, skipping most of the usual gatherings we normally look forward to. When we do need to go out in public, we mask up and keep our distance from others.

Some of us have been sick. Some of us have lost loved ones. Economically, it’s a crisis. Hard on businesses. Hard on workers. Hard on families. In some cases — such as when a business has had to permanently close — it’s been devastating. In the midst of all the doom and gloom, however, there have been hiccups of hope. People all over the world have discovered new ways to connect, and businesses everywhere have found new ways to serve and sell. In that sense, this era of isolation has also been one of innovation. In this year’s Progress magazine, we take a closer look at this phenomenon, here at the local level. We talk to Perham restaurants, retailers and manufacturers for an inside look at how they’re coping with the pandemic. How they’re working together, sharing ideas, and supporting each other to weather the storm. How they’re rising to the challenges to stay afloat. How they’re, to quote the title of this magazine, “Surviving COVID-19.”



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Contents 8



Holding together to hold strong

Rising to meet new health and safety challenges

Bars and Restaurants

Downtown Shops



Eateries creatively cope with revenue losses

14 Brew Ales and Eats 17 Lakes Cafe


24 North Pines Market 27 The Willow Bookstore



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Melissa Swenson | mswenson@dlnewspapers.com MAGAZINE EDITOR:

Marie Johnson | mtjohnson@dlnewspapers.com CONTRIBUTORS:

Rebecca Mitchell | rmitchell@wadenapj.com RosaLin Alcoser | ralcoser@perhamfocus.com DESIGN:

Tasha Kenyon | tkenyon@dlnewspapers.com

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take out tide

Restaurants and bars face revenue losses with a push for creativity. STORY BY REBECCA MITCHELL For Progress

The tumultuous changes between indoor dining, takeout only, outdoor dining and online ordering have meant restaurants and bars in the Perham area are struggling with the stress of creatively serving customers. With every change, “they’re doing things to make it work,” as Perham’s Economic Development Director Nick Murdock says. You can now find lunch at The Cactus, cocktails at Brew Ales & Eats, platters at The Gathering Grounds and take ‘n bake options at 1894 — each with mounds of to-go containers prepared. “To implement all that stuff with the pressure of, ‘This might not actually even work and I’ll have to shut down anyway,’ and they just go all in on it,” Murdock says. “It’s just a testament to 8 | PROGRESS 2021

those managers and owners that they’re doing an awesome job at it, too.” Across the United States, 75% of restaurant operators were expecting a decrease in sales from December to February, as surveyors indicated in the National Restaurant Association COVID-19 Impact Survey Nov. 17-30. While the colder temperatures regularly bring fewer customers out, restaurants have faced slow business for months. Pam Osterfeld, 1894 co-owner, describes the finances as an “uphill battle” through each of the seasons.

“The impact on our business has been staggering,” Osterfeld said in an email. “Sales have decreased dramatically with the ‘takeout and delivery only’ model, it’s just not a feasible way to sustain a sit-down restaurant, all of the overhead with such diminished sales.” After Osterfeld and co-owner Marcus Zitzow opened the restaurant in May 2019, their first year included shortening hours, suddenly needing an outdoor space when money wasn’t available, contactless delivery to people in quarantine and the loss of holiday revenue. Head brewer Cyrus Bickell describes the Disgruntled Brewing taproom as being reduced to takeout and curbside orders. The focus became beers for liquor stores, such as in FargoMoorhead and the Twin Cities, with ▲ Street tacos were one of the special to-go options added at Papacitos Burritos during the COVID-19 shutdown last spring. Submitted Photo




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PROGRESS 2021 | 9

these stores remaining open throughout the pandemic, and bringing record wholesales at Disgruntled Brewing. “For us as a brewery, we’ve had to adapt on our brewing as far as what we brew. Typically, we would have a balanced menu … but (with) not as much taproom activity, we’ve focused more on what we can sell wholesale to liquor stores,” Bickell said. The sales of 16 ounce cans to the stores have been a strong support. The addition of holiday platters at the Gathering Grounds meant hundreds of dollars in sales not previously seen, owner Ashlea Clifton said. With items already used at the coffee shop, staff members boosted their creativity, too, and had a way to remain busy when customers weren’t filling the tables. The lulls and the rushes still come, now in the form of the phone ringing instead of filled tables and a seating waitlist. “It’s been a stressful time for the whole staff,” Clifton says. “People want to get as many hours as they can, unfortunately we’ve had to cut because obviously we don’t need the same number of staff members working when we’re doing takeout only and people aren’t here at the table. Sales being slower … we’ve got to keep the labor low in order to just stay in

10 | PROGRESS 2021

business and to keep lights on and keep operating as normal.” Restaurants have seen reduced staff members with fully staffed having a different meaning as full-time employees have been focused on helping make payroll costs manageable. At

▲ With limited in-person dining, a waiter at 1894 delivers meals to customers, masked up. ▼ Disgruntled Brewing started serving up 16 ounce cans of beer to help their sales during slow times. Submitted Photos

Disgruntled Brewing, a few bartenders opted out; part-time members at 1894 sacrificed hours; and a small group of core team members was formed at Gathering Grounds. In Otter Tail County, 6,871 unemployment insurance applications were filed between March 16, 2020 and mid-January 2021, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Of those applications, 592 are in the food and beverage serving workers category along with 414 in the cooks and food preparation works category. The applications are counted cumulatively based on how many weeks a person receives unemployment insurance. Both Clifton and owner of The Cactus, Lucas Johnson, took over ownership in September— when another closure of restaurants wasn’t expected. November “upended everything,” as Johnson describes. “One of the big things...at The Cactus that we hang our hats on is the ability to do events and catering,” Johnson says, “and of course that’s impacted all of that quite a bit.” The Cactus immediately added delivery and lunch options. “Our lunch has actually grown a little bit but it was just another thing that we had to add in order to be adaptive and try to make ends meet,” Johnson says. He also owns Papacitos Burritos which is “uniquely built for takeout because you can wrap a burrito and stick it in your pocket and you can walk out the door.” Even there business remains slower. But the “saving grace?” Remaining open and running. With the constant adapting to survive, Johnson remarked one of the tolls that’s easily overlooked is mental health. The toll hits out of nowhere. And the needs and costs continue coming: operating expenses, insurance premiums, licensing and permitting fees,

loan payments, taxes and utilities, as Osterfeld notes. “We’re responsible for 100% of all of these while being allowed to operate at about 25% of our normal sales,” Osterfeld said. “Now we get to operate at 50% capacity indoors continuing to pay all of these things plus more staff hours, the level of concern is immeasurable.” Throughout the pandemic, Minnesota’s executive orders have limited capacity inside, briefly offered outdoor dining and allowed for only takeout or curbside orders. The return to partial indoor dining as of Jan. 11 is important for businesses in the winter, as Murdock said. The complex orders have brought on questions like, “Can there only be one chair at a table of four with 25% occupancy?” “As they come out, the time frame is short to transition, so what does it mean when you have 25% occupancy and how do you calculate that?” Murdock said. The orders also include spacing out tables, wearing masks and additional cleaning procedures. The restaurants and bars were used to constant hand

Gathering Grounds worker Hayley Cluney inputs a phone order. Submitted Photo

washing and handling food safely long before the pandemic. “You can talk about distancing all you want but we work in close quarters with each other, it’s the nature of our building and it’s busy and we work closely together,” Clifton says. Perham area restaurants have remained open with the limitations, with

a few opening and closing depending on the status of indoor dining. “I think if they get through this winter and into spring, they’ll have a pretty good shot of making it. Getting through the winter, that’s going to be the tough one, just any winter in general let alone a pandemic winter is tough on a business,” Murdock says. “The time will tell.”

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City manager Jonathan Smith agrees, saying, “I don’t think we know the total impact yet” on Perham. The federal stimulus payments and grants such as the Paycheck Protection Program also make it difficult to know the full loss in revenue. Profit margins are lower, as 86% of restaurant operators across the country says. “How long is that impact going to be? Come April, May, is it going to be back to 2019 where all the tourism is back and all the people are back at their lake cabins and it’s like 2020 never happened? Or are we still going to be seeing some of the effects?” Smith remarked. “Personally, I just have a feeling that it’s never going to be back the way it was, people are just going to be more cautious and they’re going to be more aware of their surroundings.” He describes Perham businesses as being able to “hang on.” Though, new businesses and housing developments continue happening.

The Cactus employees served Kit Masters employees in shifts for a Grinch themed Christmas dinner. Submitted Photo

A Healthy Pet is a Happy Pet

“There’s still excitement out there, there’s still movement,” Smith says. “Perham’s not slowing down.” He adds, “We’re going to continue to try to ride that wave.” Cassie Hahn, Perham Chamber of Commerce board member and Brew Ales & Eats district manager, said some restaurants are considering permanently closing. “Food’s hard work. Unless you’ve really got a lot of time to set aside to do food, it’s exhausting,” Hahn says. “If you're just a little Mom and Pop operation that doesn't have that build up of full-time core staff that’s helping bring people in regularly, I could see where it’s just easier to be like, ‘You know, this just isn’t for us anymore.’” Locals and regulars make a steady, positive impact on Perham's restaurants. The community support has kept doors open now and for the future, Hahn says. All the owners interviewed thanked the community for its support. In 2019, Esri reports

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Brew Ales & Eats has sat empty on-and-off throughout the pandemic, with customers sometimes only stopping in to pick up takeout orders. Submitted Photo

consumers in Perham spent $2,817.71 per household on dining out. “I talked to one customer that said they ate out more during any of the lockdowns than they ever have because they’re trying to support the local guys around here,” Johnson says. “It’s huge. Obviously it’s not enough to make up the difference but it’s just a huge thing to be in our community that does do that type of stuff.” The rising strength of Perham was also seen after the 2008 economic downturn when the severity was understood but the community kept going, a culture that has been formed over 40-50 years, as Smith notes. “We’re going to have some sort of an economic impact that’s not going to be a pleasant one for people,” Smith said. “We’re going to continue to be active, we’re going to continue to be progressive, we’re going to continue to be positive and we’re going to try to thrive. And hopefully we can keep that and take advantage of that.”

As reopening continues, Perham will come out of this, Smith and Clifton note. “It truly will take years to recover from this, and for some, that will never happen,” Osterfeld says. “We just hope to make it to the other side.”

CREATIVELY FACING TO-GO ORDERS Brew Ales & Eats used innovative ideas to adapt to the 'busyish' pace of takeout.

Reduced hours and limited customer interaction has become the norm this year, Brew Ales & Eats District Manager Cassie Hahn says. The restaurant adopted a new business model, and staff have been constantly learning new rules and approaches to social distancing. “COVID has really flipped our world upside down,” she says.

“There’s still excitement out there, there’s still movement. Perham’s not slowing down. We’re going to continue to try to ride that wave.” — City Manager Jonathan Smith

14 | PROGRESS 2021

Yet Hahn also found the time exciting as employees found new ways to run the restaurant—quickly. “I found it a little thrilling to learn to pivot very quickly to generate revenue to keep those guys employed and keep their insurance benefits in place,” she says. “Restaurant life is pretty difficult to begin with. It’s always kind of learning to pivot and deal with different personality types and different issues that arise and different roadblocks,” Hahn notes. The restaurant had to find new revenue sources as the team organized their flow of to-go models. The ideas of mixology to-go kids, take 'n bake options and featured meals simply weren't needed before when the sit-down restaurant was bustling, Hahn says. The take ‘n bake options appeared at Thanksgiving and Christmas and now are a regular monthly item. “Nobody wants to feel or be complacent, so to stimulate their brains and keep them excited, moving forward has been a priority as well,” Hahn notes about employees and customers. The little interactions with customers at tables and the bar dried up, and instead there've been waits for customers to call or place their online order. People weren’t able to come in and out after enjoying the restaurant atmosphere. They stepped in for a moment only to leave again. Assistant manager and bartender Charlie Larson says this is the biggest difference: missing conversations with customers. “It was a lot different obviously with just takeout, not seeing people for two months a couple times this last year,” Larson says. The takeout seasons have been “busyish,” as Larson describes. The orders can still come in a rush with phone calls back to back and an influx of online orders. People just aren’t able to see this busyness like a full restaurant and a busy kitchen that’s easier to explain. With orders crunched into a smaller time frame, Hahn says so is the revenue. And the great service with a smile and drinks made in front of a customer are now smiles seen in people’s eyes and canned drinks customers can take home.

“We weren’t really making money but we weren’t really losing money either, kind of a break even through the times,” Larson says. The Brew restaurants in North Dakota have been a help as those restaurants stayed open for indoor seating longer during the pandemic. This, too, meant Perham’s Brew Ales & Eats didn’t have the worry of having to close. Remaining open—even at the takeout level—is a “pretty big deal,” Larson says, as employees remain off unemployment. In all of this, the Brew has found creativity with a staff of 12 employees down from 20-30. Hahn says the reduced number of employees focuses on full-time staff members. “How do we not lay off all of our core full time staff? How do we keep them busy? How do we generate enough revenue to keep payroll flowing?” Hahn remarks. Even with staff continuing to work along the lines in the kitchen, the food can’t be prepared suddenly to then sit in a box waiting for the customer to pick it up. “Timing’s been really important,”

With several to-go boxes lined up, Brew Ales & Eats Cook Sue Ayers adds sauces to the meals. Submitted Photo

Hahn notes. Afterall, the order up call brings the food to a bag, not the person’s table. When an order comes in, even in a lull, the time the food will be sitting in the box has to be considered. While the Brew has adjusted food preparation, the customer favorites like the Brew Burger and Cajun Chicken Sandwich have remained popular. With


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a decreased volume of customers and items that don’t carry well, other menu items have been removed, including the poutine. The dish is loaded with french fries that unfortunately transfer soggy. Hahn says it comes down to “Is it worth us serving? Probably not. We don’t want people to have bad experiences, either.”


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“McDonald’s carries well because that’s what they’ve designed their whole model to do, is be food in a bag. Well, we haven’t designed our entire model to be that way so our french fries don’t travel great,” she adds. For Hahn, the challenges have shown her and the team what they are capable of. Larson notes they aim for “succeeding as best you could with the limited opportunity we had.” With the Minnesota executive order in November and December keeping retail stores open, people were able to shop and bring in customers for restaurants as well. Hahn describes the experiences of the community simply wanting to help as “tremendous” and “heartwarming.” Businesses buy lunch for their employees, gift cards are added regularly and giveaways between businesses

encourage customers in various settings. “Without that local support, I don’t see us as making it this far,” Hahn says. “It’s been very generous in tipping our staff because obviously that’s a huge part of their income taken out of the equation when they’re not doing table side service,” Hahn says. The quick changes and slower business will hopefully shift toward normal by March, as Larson says. He’s looking forward to summer and for customers to enjoy food at their tables like “it’s supposed to be.” “I can see it being one of our busiest summers we’ve ever had here,” Larson says. “People are sick of not doing stuff and it’s not like we’re a party bar really but just to go out to socialize, meet. People are missing that, so come on summer.”

“We weren’t really making money but we weren’t really losing money either, kind of a break even through the times.” — Assistant Manager and Bartender Charlie Larson, Brew Ales & Eats

LAKES CAFE: ‘GLAD TO BE OPEN’ With food in a box and less employees, the Cafe has loved the community support. Customers are the engine that keeps a restaurant open from one year to the next. While Rich Doll, co-owner of Lakes Cafe, knew the importance of local customers long before the year 2020 — with the cafe open for about 25 years — he was amazed at how people wanted to support them when all they could get was food in a box. He’s seen generosity, like customers dropping off Christmas cards and hundreds of dollars in cash for the employees they love and hope to support. The employees largely lived on unemployment insurance, at about 60% of their normal income, through the Christmas season. The tips made from serving people at tables disappeared, and that’s where some employees make their living, Doll says.

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“We need these people back,” he says. “They’re important to us. They’re basically a big part of what makes a small town cafe what it is — it's people, and that's why people come in here, because they know our staff. They get to know them and they’re close with them.” The servers have worked alongside Doll and co-owner Randy Mattfeld for five, 10, even 16 years. Through November and December, Doll and Mattfeld worked four to five hour days alternating one of them along with a cook with the adjusted hours of 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The cafe was down to two, from a staff of 15-20. The biggest change at the cafe is fewer employees for filling the to-go orders. Doll says it’s simply something they can do — not necessarily that sales are there. He estimates sales at about 25%. If it were about making money, “we probably shouldn’t be open this time around,” he said. “We just have because it’s easy for us to do it with two of us.”

In preparing to open for indoor dining, a Lakes Cafe worker cleans the grill. Submitted Photo

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The cafe owners considered temporarily closing when restaurants first operated in the to-go model in spring 2020, though the Paycheck Protection Program changed that thought with enough funds to pay employees. “It’s getting us by,” Doll notes of the federal programs that have aided in keeping Lakes Cafe open. The cafe received $55,000 in PPP funds and $10,000 in Economic Injury Disaster Loan funds in April. “Business is as you would expect, it’s pretty pathetic,” Doll says. “People have tried to help us out.” As people have supported the cafe, with an appreciation for local loyalty that Doll is thankful for, the owners have given funds to employees as they could, especially over Christmas. Community members shared monetary gifts, cards and simply wondered when they could see their favorite server again. The to-go style also means the restaurant remains a constant for customers who regularly eat at the cafe

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and want to enjoy an aspect of their prepandemic routine. Doll explains, “Even though we’re not as busy as we should be, we are here if they want a place to eat and come get some good food.” Doll said even with sales “way down,” the cafe is in a better position than new restaurants. The impact on a new business would be “devastating,” he added. “We’ve been established for a number of years so we’ll be OK, I guess,” Doll says. “Our biggest concern is our employees and how they’re being taken care of.” On the limited menu, people’s favorites like breakfast and hamburgers continue in the to-go option but “people aren’t coming in right now at this time because they love eating out of a to-go box,” Doll says. “They’re coming in because they’re supporting the small town restaurants.”

“People aren’t coming in right now at this time because they love eating out of a to-go box. They’re coming in because they’re supporting the small town restaurants.” — Rich Doll, co-owner of Lakes Cafe

Masks sit ready for customers who may need them while picking up their to-go owners at a local restaurant. Submitted Photo

He would like some "lead time" on the decisions for aspects like ordering supplies. Doll hopes government leaders will learn that the decisions they make can be too much, too fast. He doesn't have confidence that they have learned, though. In the food business, precautions are daily in place for food and health safety regardless of the pandemic, and with these guidelines constantly in place Doll’s message to leaders is, “Let us do that.” He said cases aren’t coming from restaurants because of these precautions in place. “We’ve been practicing safe practices as far as cleanliness before this all happened so this is nothing new,” he notes. “This is what we do.” The changing restrictions come with a tenacious back and forth: from doors largely closed with quick entrances of customers for their to-go boxes to indoor dining with a percentage of customers trickling in and the brief option of outdoor dining in the summer. With people afraid of the

spread of the coronavirus, the summer did bring extra takeout orders compared to other summers. Still, business remained down overall, Doll notes. “I’m trying not to get my hopes up because we’ve been let down enough,” Doll said prior to restaurants reopening to 50% capacity on Jan. 11. With business continuing forward, Doll says, “We’re glad to be open. I hope people come out, but it’s that time of year (January to March) where we’re used to being slow anyways.” 

Through the reopenings and reduced capacities for restaurants, Doll says he is past the point of watching the news, “it’s just frustrating.” Restaurants must also await the news to come to “get back” to partially open, biting their tongue and hoping, as Doll notes. “If you’d have asked me We are located at... a few months ago, I would 407 Carlund Parkway in New York Mills have said they're not going to Employing over 250 throughout the year shut it down again, but who knows? We've just come to TENDER HEARTS HOME CARE accept we’re under the thumb Kerrie Steinbach, Owner of somebody else, and it’s just PCA Homecare easier to do what they say than Respite Homemaking to be angry about it all the 877-362-9784 • 385-3466 time,” he says with a laugh.

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Downtown business

holds together during the long winter of COVID-19 STORY BY ROSALIN ALCOSER For Progress

In a year constantly impacted by the pandemic, Perham's downtown business community was hardest hit by the statewide shutdown in the spring of 2020. Through it all, the community has held together and held strong. While businesses did see a slower tourist season than in past years, people still visited the lakes area over the summer months. The year has also served as a reminder of the value and power of shopping small and local. It is through this value that Perham's downtown businesses have been able to weather the long, icy winter of the pandemic and keep their doors open. “Locally, we’ve seen a definite impact, but I don’t think it’s probably at the same level as other areas in the state or county,” said Perham Economic Development Director Nick Murdock. “We haven’t seen any business really shut down completely due to the pandemic, yet.” He said while Perham has held on so far, the pandemic is not over yet and Perham’s business community still has the rest of it to weather.

PROGRESS 2021 | 21

Murdock said geography helped keep the first wave of infections from reaching the community as quickly as it did others: “I think, as a community, we were proactive in getting all the PPE (personal protective equipment) and most people were on board with doing all of the preventive stuff.” Perham’s business community has adapted with the changing restrictions on how they can operate. “To be able to open during a pandemic and stay safe during it is a tough thing, and a lot of them did it really well,” Murdock said. “Overall in Perham, because of the traffic that we get from industry workers and that type of thing, we’ve seen business,” Perham Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Dan Schroeder said. “It has slowed because of COVID but it has kept us alive.” “I think that our tourist numbers weren’t as bad as most people think they were,” Murdock said. “A lot of it had to do with the shutdowns and the restrictions.” Through the efforts of marketing campaigns, the chamber worked to let people in places like Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Fargo know that Perham businesses were following COVID-19 safety protocols and was a safe place to visit this year, Schroeder said. He said events put on by the Chamber, like Turtle Fest 2.0 in June, which was a smaller

These three-inch rocks were among the 10 used during the June 17 Race to Find the Turtle event, a new, special event planned in light of social distancing rules. Submitted Photo

22 | PROGRESS 2021

version of the usual annual Turtle Fest celebration, helped bring in tourists. In addition to the marketing of events and telling visitors that Perham was a safe place to visit during the pandemic, the Chamber

also encouraged people to shop local. Schroeder said the Chamber always does joint promotions with its members throughout the year to encourage people to shop local. This past spring, the Chamber did a gift certificate promotion to get local people to support businesses closed during the shutdown. “Perham is a little unique because we have so many people working here, and that’s a lot of traffic on a daily basis,” Schroeder said. “A lot of businesses probably don’t have the cash reserve that they normally do going into January, February, March, which is typically the slowest time of the year for most businesses in town,” Murdock said. Murdock, who until Jan. 1, 2021, was the owner of the downtown Murdock’s Ace Hardware store, now Lakes Ace Hardware, said in any year, Perham’s downtown businesses can be hurt if they are not ready financially going into the slow stretch between January and March.

▲ Retail and food vendors set up booths in a blocked off area of West Main Street for a street shopping event during Turtle Fest 2020. ◀ Turtle Fest wasn't able to draw its usual crowd this past summer due to COVID-19, but some people still turned out for the limited festivities held June 19. Submitted Photos

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“We’ve got a good sense of community here where we support each other,” Murdock said. One of the ways that Perham came together as a community early on was with the Starfish Fund. The Starfish Fund was a grant program that the city of Perham and the Economic Development Authority administered. Murdock said the EDA, local businesses, individuals, and community organizations donated funds to the grants program. The purpose of the program was to distribute emergency funds to businesses in the Perham area that needed help during the shutdown back in March and April 2020. Murdock said 81 businesses in Perham, Ottertail, New York Mills, and just outside of the Perham city limits received funds from the grant program. The Starfish Fund raised and distributed $116,000 in the first three weeks after the shutdown started, Murdock said.

NORTH PINES MARKET A pandemic, a remodel, and a rise in DIY.

▲ North Pines Market's owner Veronica Marpoe wears her mask while standing behind the counter at the store. ▼ With plenty of space for spreading out and new displays, North Pines Market is ready for people to come in and safely shop in their store. Submitted Photos

North Pines Market on West Main Street is home to custom made wood accent walls, farm tables and a large variety of items made by small businesses across America. “My goal is to carry just really awesome smaller-based business," said North Pines Market Owner Veronica Marpoe. "Myself and my husband (Jeremy Marpoe), we make products, and I would say 70% of our store (inventory) is made in the United States. Prior to the start of the shutdown in March, North Pines Market was already closed for remodeling. “We were about ready to open when we were told that we had to close,” Marpoe said. She said it would have been nice if they knew the shutdown was coming and had been able to do the remodel then.

“We were about ready to open when we were told that we had to close.” — Veronica Marpoe, owner of North Pines Market

24 | PROGRESS 2021

Marpoe said in the remodel, they built new displays, added a play corner and playhouse for kids, a pet wall with grass on it, and a display of their accent wood walls, among other things. Marpoe said North Pines Market got to reopen in June on the same day as the bars and restaurants. “Right off the bat, when COVID really seemed to be a thing, we began to see a decrease in our custom work for wood walls and all of that,” Marpoe said. “Everybody was unsure financially what was going to happen, and we completely understood that. “When it didn’t seem like we were going to come out of COVID anytime soon, people started to say ‘we’re not spending as much because we’re not always going out to eat all the time.’ I think the comfort level of, ‘hey we can remodel our house now or do touch-ups’ started there,” Marpoe said. Marpoe said people have been doing more remodeling now that they spend more time at home. Some are creating a home office or a space for their children to use for distance learning.

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People wanted comfortable clothing to wear at home or Minnesota clothing to send to loved ones who were not able to come home this year, Marpoe said. These items were in demand to the point when an item was posted on Facebook, “we’d get a flood of messages saying, ‘Hey, I need to add this to my at-home gear,” Marpoe said. Once the doors reopened, people did start coming into the store again. “We were constantly cleaning and wiping down all of our door As part of the North Pines Market remodel in 2020, a handles and high touch playhouse was added to the kids' corner to give kids a place to areas,” Marpoe said. hang out while their parents shop at the store. Since the remodel, there's plenty of space in the store for people to spread out and Marpoe said the wood walls they sell practice safe social distancing while they can either be installed by North Pines shop: “People were really good this year or people can choose to install the walls about personal space and really watched themselves. While self-installation was always an option, there has been a rise in out for others and cleanliness,” she said. it over the course of the pandemic. If a customer needs to video chat while installing the wall to make sure that they are doing it right, North Pines Market does that. “We make sure that we are very much there for our customers,” Marpoe said. “Now it’s a family event, while coming onto the Facetime with me and saying, 'Hey, are we doing this right?’” Marpoe said she also video chats with customers to fill their orders. Getting to know the customers while Facetiming with them around the store is almost like personal shopping, she said, and it's tons of fun for her. Marpoe said comfort items such as hoodies, sweatshirts and crewnecks have been in high demand over the course of the pandemic. “We sell a lot of Minnesota based clothing,” she said.

THE WILLOW BOOKSTORE Booming business and cozy reads. Located on Perham’s West Main Street, the Willow Bookstore has seen changes in business, and has had a good year despite the pandemic. When the shutdown began in March, Willow Bookstore owner Megan Wells said the 2-year-old store probably saw an 80% increase in sales from the past year. “I’ve been keeping track and if you average out, it is better,” Wells said. That's partly because of people wanting to read more during the pandemic, and because of local shoppers. “They do understand the value of shopping local. I think a lot of people have come to realize the importance of that during all of this,” she said. But the way customers shop has changed. “Both me and the customers have been utilizing the website a lot more,” Wells said. Like with many businesses during the lockdown, the bookstore offered curbside pick-up to its customers. “When our doors were closed, people utilized that and I did deliveries. Our

Social distancing, limited time in the store, hand sanitizer, and seating being removed to prevent lingering have all been practiced at the bookstore to help keep customers safe. Submitted Photos

PROGRESS 2021 | 27

doors have been open and even with the masks and stuff, people have been coming in,” Wells said. Wells said that since reopening, the bookstore has had to adapt. The store sells coffee and seating had to be removed to keep people from lingering in the store, she said. “We do have a limit on how many people can be in the store at a time for safe spacing, but we haven’t really had to enforce that at all. With our hours, people are able to space it out,” Wells said.

Wells said people are also spending less time browsing the store or asking for recommendations. Customers are instead coming into the store knowing what they are looking for to minimize the amount of time they spend in the store. She said she has not gotten into doing online events yet but she will be looking into doing them in the future. She said the kind of online events for the bookstore that she will be looking into will be author based: “Where we’re

able to ask questions and hear from the author,” she said. Wells said some authors, especially local authors, will participate in book club discussions. Those types of readerauthor interactions are what she hopes to invoke in online events. While the pandemic has impacted many local businesses, Willow has fared well through the storm. “I feel like people have been wanting to read to escape. It’s been a lot more fiction and kind of like cozy reads. Not a lot of drama or a lot going on, just reading to escape,” Wells said. Popular sellers have been books such as romance novels or fiction with a female lead and a happy ending.

▲ The Willow Bookstore owner Megan Wells masked behind the coffee counter at bookstore. ◀ Books like romance novels and other stories with happy endings have sold well over the course of the pandemic, as people have used reading as a form of escape. Submitted Photos

28 | PROGRESS 2021

“They do understand the value of shopping local.” — Megan Wells, owner of Willow Bookstore, on local customers during the pandemic

Willow Bookstore has seen a better year this year than in the past, as people have been reading more during the pandemic. Submitted Photo

“Happily ever afters have definitely done well. So it’s a cozy read, but I think it’s the happily ever after that people have been after more,” Wells said. In addition, “Bibles have been on the rise during the pandemic,” Wells said. Before the pandemic, Wells said a lot more time was spent on shelving new orders and interacting with customers. With a slowdown in how people are coming into the store, it has given her more time to look at what was and was not working for the store. Wells said having that time to really dig into what directions she wants the store to go has been a silver lining to the pandemic. 

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Manufacturing hasn't necessarily slowed down during the pandemic, but some rules and procedures have changed. Submitted Photo

With the roads leading to Perham outfitted with manufacturing plants, the companies rose to follow additional health and safety guidelines. The companies have always adapted to changes impacting the community, this challenge just happens to be a global pandemic. "Perham and manufacturing go hand-in-hand," Perham Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Dan Schroeder says. "It's been a good thing Perham has it, because it kept us really alive during this last year." In the COVID world, working inside of a production plant seems like a catastrophe waiting for the next outbreak to occur, such as meat processing plants and shoe plants abruptly closing across the country when the number of cases where too high for production to continue. But in Perham, manufacturing leaders mark the lack of outbreaks, the challenges of costs for employees’ safety and the expanding labor need. While leaders needed a binder on pandemic protocols that didn’t come with the job, they were “determined” to 32 | PROGRESS 2021

keep their employees safe and remain functional, as Perham’s Economic Development Director Nick Murdock describes. The plants have largely looked to the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on just how operations can continue safely. Perham Health, too, has been a guide for additional safety precautions. "It hasn't been a 'fly by the seat of our pants' type thing, it's been much more where it's the CDC pushing us," explains KLN Family Brands Learning/

Development Specialist Robb Moser, "and then trying to make sure that we can roll that into ours (policy).” The masks and thermometers needed piled up for the hundreds of workers in each plant. Within the facilities, break rooms were added with fewer people in each and masks became a requirement, as Bongards president and CEO Daryl Larson notes. “Largely everyone (manufacturers) was doing pretty close to the same thing and the fact that we were requiring masks probably made it easier for others in town to require masks,” Larson says, “and vice versa.” The cleaning and COVID-19 testing have come as priorities, including providing tests for close contacts at Tuffy’s Pet Foods and Kenny’s Candy and Confections along with increased frequency of sanitizing additional areas in the plants. Without the coronavirus, the industries also have their own specific health and safety guidelines to follow on a daily basis, as Moser notes. “Because we’re in food manufacturing and because there’s so many standards that we have to abide by, … our people had already been trained on respiratory etiquette, lots of hand-washing, lots of glove wearing,” Moser notes. “Although in a factory sense, social distancing can be difficult.” At Kit Masters and Swan Machine, the plant meetings are broken into cells instead of the whole plant at once. “Other than that, it hasn’t changed our behavior a ton,” says Darrin Swanson, president and CEO. And don’t forget the disinfectant that the facility is covered in every three days as different parts of the plant are cleaned daily. “There’s lots and lots of additional costs and an impact on our sales taking revenue the other way,” Larson says. Often a manufacturing plant also includes sales people visiting for new

“We’re trying to collaborate with other businesses to either offer them support or use them as a resource to try to get through this pandemic.” — Darrin Swanson, Swan Machine president and CEO

equipment or any range of products the company might benefit from, but the risk for spread of the coronavirus is not one local manufacturers are willing to take. The plants are closed to all nonessential visitors. One of the key aspects in adapting: communicating the changing plans and notifying employees on positive cases within the plants. The case information, without the names, is quickly passed on to employees through the payroll notification system, according to Swanson. “We’ve tried to be flexible to the individual needs of our people but at the same time trying to maintain a fully functional production facility,” as Moser says about employees needing time off for sickness or being tested. “It’s a real balancing act.” The changes came as part of a larger collaboration between businesses, like HR professionals regularly meeting to continue following policies and best practices. With these relationships, manufacturers can be confident in their decisions and their need for following the guidelines to protect employees and their families, especially as families may have multiple members working at different plants in town. “We’re trying to collaborate with other businesses to either offer them support or use them as a resource to try to get through this pandemic,” Swanson says. The strict guidelines have proven effective: none of the plants reported an outbreak. Positive cases of COVID-19 have come, of course, with Shearer’s reporting one in April and one in May along with facilities seeing cases increase as Otter Tail County’s cases went up in the fall. “We have ran into … waves of people who have COVID and we have to send them home so it’s impacted our production,” Swanson says. Though there was a decrease in business at Kit

Masters, production wasn’t halted for days or weeks. The safety guidelines are an aspect Schroeder and Murdock are thankful for: The guidelines don’t just keep the plants open, they help Perham’s economy. With outbreaks not occurring at the

▲ Bongards Human Resources Manager, Ross Vettleson, has his temperature scanned before entering the facility. ▼ The Kit Masters and Swan Machine facility is closed to all non-essential visitors. Submitted Photos

plants, it helped minimize the impact on the rest of the businesses in the area. “Thinking back, if we would have had an outbreak at any one of our larger employers, it could have been severely detrimental to our entire town just because there’s so many connections between all the businesses,” Murdock says. The manufacturers themselves would also have had an “economic downfall” without products and cash flow, as Schroeder explains. A closure also means employees would be on unemployment insurance: “The effect would be far reaching” with the number of people connected to the plants, as Murdock notes. As essential businesses, the plants have continued producing through the duration of the pandemic — even as Kit Masters and Bongards saw sales decrease. Swanson says the aftermarket has been negatively impacted with the trucking industry down across the United States. Bongards, too, was impacted initially by the closure of restaurants and distance learning for K-12 schools with a 50% decline in sales. At Tuffy’s, Kenny’s and Shearer’s, food items have remained popular. Both candy and pet food saw increased demand for months at a time with

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pet food and popcorn stabilizing. Swan Machine has seen the busyness as well, with employees from Kit Masters working at Swan Machine to offset the difference. Swan Machine specializes in milling, turning, swiss products, firearm parts, industrial components and transportation parts. The facilities each hired more employees, and are on the search for more. The additional employees have helped avoid decreased production and are ready if a large number of employees have to be out due to being sick or in quarantine. KLN, Kit Masters and Swan Machine have added flexible positions for people who are temporarily out of work due to the pandemic. These positions could be every other day or for three weeks, Swanson says. Schroeder says Perham would benefit from 300400 more workers. The flexibility for illness and keeping with precautions including additional time on each shift to clean, have brought overall healthy plants. “We’re fortunate that things are happening,” Schroeder says.


While employees were added at Kenny’s, so were new safety precautions at both KLN Family Brand facilities. In the months of a pandemic, company growth seems a far-off wish, but the stock-up phase wasn’t just for toilet paper or canned goods — people purchased an abundance of pet food to prepare for the unknown, as KLN Family Brands Learning/Development Specialist Robb Moser says. Candy sales at Kenny’s Candy and Confections, too, found their way into high demand with people especially interested in the Wiley Wallaby licorice. “When COVID first hit it affected things a little bit differently,” Moser says. “We really saw a real high demand for pet food.” With this boom, employees have plenty of production to keep up with. Kenny’s employees have worked at least

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one Saturday a month as the popcorn treats have held a stable demand and licorice has become popular. While the interest in treats comes with a great sales team, Moser says the pandemic has contributed to these sales. And at Tuffy’s, since you can only have so much pet food, sales have returned to stable after the first month of the pandemic. Alongside the high demand also comes the challenges of needing additional labor, in a time when prioritizing social distancing and limiting group sizes is key to keeping people well. The growth has added 65 jobs from March to December at Kenny’s. The question of “What are we going to do?” as the pandemic required responses in March wasn’t lost on KLN leaders either. Communication with employees on changes coming became a regular aspect. The COVID Response Team set to work, publishing and sharing an action plan. The plan transitioned from voluntary masks in April to mandatory masks in May. The health and safety aspects like hand-washing and wearing gloves

were already in place with food manufacturing daily requiring these safety practices. To keep the steam rolling, changing shift times has been limited, Moser says. The plants have plenty of required creative social distancing aspects, though. The seemingly small changes of entering or exiting through a new place or having a different checking in process “really do shake up the normal routine quite a bit,” as Moser describes. Managers and supervisors made training rooms into break rooms, where a table for one is the routine. Each table is outfitted with disinfectant spray, cleaning wipes and the constant reminder to wash your hands. The guidelines are meant to protect employees, not punish them for breaking the rules, as Moser notes. “It’s hard to get people to feel comfortable wearing them while doing something that is in production,” he says about wearing masks. “It is tough.” The turbulence continues as schools close for distance learning and employees then need child care unexpectedly,

At Kenny's, employee Deb Priebe sanitizes high touch areas. Submitted Photo

Moser shares. In hopes of offsetting the overwhelming factors, KLN formed the COVID Hardship Policy for employees to have the option of using a negative balance on their vacation time, payment for two weeks if they or a family member have COVID-19 and changing the attendance policy to not penalize employees who are being tested.

The balance of caring for employees and customers comes as an important challenge between producing with extra demand at Kenny’s and finding additional employees. The long list of common symptoms doesn’t help either. Moser says messaging is loud and clear on getting tested for even slight symptoms, for the goal of safety for one

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another, themselves and their families. But employees also need a job, and in this case the job requires producing products in the plants. “(We) ride the line of safety and being productive,” Moser notes. “For us shutting down was never really an option. We wanted people to maintain their benefits, we wanted people to maintain a steady income,” he says. “We wanted to meet our customers’ needs so there would be good jobs for our people when the pandemic is over.” The predicament again comes when employees are waiting for test results all while the production must keep up with the demand. Employees quickly add to their loads with the flux of employees out for testing. Moser says employees out for testing at KLN have matched county trends with a large influx in November that has subsided. “For us the testing was so hard because … everyone was trying to get testing and the system couldn’t catch up as much,” Moser explains. “I think that was troubling for all parties involved.”

The number of employees testing and receiving positive tests had become fewer every week by the time of this writing in late January. The cases within KLN have followed county trends, with employees being exposed in the community rather than at the plants. Alongside encouraging testing at community testing sites or local health care providers, the company also ordered tests for employees who were possibly close contacts of a person infected with COVID-19. With the added health and safety guidelines, one of KLN’s key partnerships has been with Perham Health, including with their on-site clinic at the main office building. The clinic had originally opened in partnership with Shearer’s Snacks in 2017, who opted out in 2019. Moser says asking Perham Health questions has been a “lifeline.” In June, they even

“For us, shutting down was never really an option. We wanted people to maintain their benefits, we wanted people to maintain a steady income.” — KLN Family Brands Learning/Development Specialist Robb Moser

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inspected the Tuffy’s and Kenny’s plants to see if there were ways to better adhere to the Minnesota Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Without a guiding binder on how to manage a pandemic and with constant adjustments to balance, Moser says the company tries its best to respond well, "And granted, we're not out of the woods, but I think we get better every day." “Challenges provide us the opportunity to make adjustments in our lives, which can ultimately lead to improvement,” KLN President and CEO Charlie Nelson told the Perham Focus this past fall. “It doesn’t seem to matter what the struggle is, challenges almost always provide the opportunity to come out on the other side stronger than ever. I truly believe that will be the case for our community.”

THE PRODUCT THAT MUST KEEP CURDLING With a desire to protect employees and as sales were down, Bongards continued processing milk. The start of the coronavirus pandemic carried a “tremendous decrease in sales” with a 50% decrease from the end of March to the beginning of May, Bongards Creameries President and CEO Daryl Larson shares. The hit followed a recent 10% increase. By the end of 2020, a small decline in sales compared to 2019 still existed in the value added cheese products, which largely serve restaurants and schools. The sales decline is the first in over a decade, according to Larson and Director of Marketing Evan Carlson. The company has otherwise seen doubledigit sales growth for the past five years.

Joe Nelson works on the block packaging line at Bongards. Submitted Photo

As restaurants and schools had to move to new models, the cheese sales weren’t there. Larson says, "It really was pretty devastating to our mostly food service and K-12 business.”

Bongards also sells products in the areas of food processing, convenience stores, delis, and internationally. While experiencing a decrease in revenue, Bongards found itself, along with industry after industry, stretched with high costs for personal protective equipment. At the plants, additional locker and break rooms, masks and thermometers emerged as needs for the safety of employees. “It’s necessary in order to fight the pandemic and keep our employees and their families healthy and safe,” Larson says, “but there’s tremendous cost involved.” The cleaning of the plant and the milk tankers coming in daily was no new change, though. Larson says, “Dairy plants inherently are … clean and sanitary, they’re cleaned up very, very frequently, in some cases every day, but we redoubled our efforts there with cleaning and sanitizing” in the common areas. Stacks of ways to protect employees rolled out day after day in March.



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Conference calls reviewing the situation formed into decisions intended to limit the spread of the coronavirus from employee to employee and from employee to family members. The enjoyment of being near co-workers during a quick break or lunch time disappeared with the addition of more break rooms for the ever-present need of social distancing. “Anything we could do to keep someone that might … possibly have the virus from infecting our employees and our facilities we did, basically,” Larson remarks. The decisions come with the guiding roadmap of “very, very critical” guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Minnesota Department of Health as well as employee ideas on safety, as Larson notes. The protections have included 91 different items as of December 2020. The previously common practice of having sales team members travel to visit customers and other plants across the U.S. was halted due to the risk of spreading or being infected with the virus. Even travel between the three plants in Perham, Bongards, Minn. and Humboldt, Tenn., has been suspended since March 2020. “We didn’t want to either take something to one of the three plants or catch something at one of the three plants and contaminate our other facilities or our offices,” Larson explains. The Perham cheese plant kept on curdling cheese, though the processed cheese plants in Bongards and Humboldt had weeks of production reduced with the decrease in sales. The Perham plant produces natural cheeses and whey. The company also prepared for a possible shutdown: employees trained to be sent to another plant and extra employees were hired. The production line saw increased flexibility with about

The Perham Bongards has not missed any production due to the coronavirus, a feat company leaders attribute to its employees following all health and safety rules. Submitted Photo

six additional employees. This way, if employees needed to quarantine or became sick themselves, people were ready to step in and the plant could keep on producing cheese. The employees keep the plants running, and the employees need the plant to keep running for a job to have. And while the mandatory masks starting in April come as a “not very popular decision” in the warm factory environment, Larson emphasizes the health and safety aspects help keep the plant operational. “In a lot of cases they don’t like it because it is uncomfortable and it is cumbersome, but they have stepped up and followed … the things we put in place and worked extra hours when we had people that were out for COVID exposure or just normal time away from work,” he says. With fellow manufacturers in town having similar requirements, Larson says, "There wasn't a lot of, ‘Well why do you make us do this when down the street they don’t have to?’”

“We fared a lot better than a lot of people … and it’s due to our employees doing what we’ve asked them to do and more.” — Daryl Larson, Bongards Creameries president and CEO

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The Bongards co-op farmer members total 85 tankers of milk a day at the Perham plant, and “that milk has to get processed,” Larson says. If the plant had to shut down, the region would not have the capacity to process the milk and the milk would be dumped. “We have not missed any production all throughout this ordeal,” Larson says. “We fared a lot better than a lot of people in that respect, and it’s due to our employees doing what we’ve asked them to do and more.” As one of their top priorities, Carlson says Bongards always seeks a place for farmers’ milk to go with operations running as smoothly as possible. “The fact that we are a multi-plant company is a big benefit,” Larson says. “We have the ability, if needed, to take employees from the other plants and have them assist us in Perham to make sure we continue to run that milk that’s going to spoil in two or three days if it’s not processed.” Throughout the pandemic, the contingency plans have sat shelved. The plans include a list of employees who are willing to come to Perham and run the plant. Larson says he believes it’s a list they won’t need. But until the pandemic subsides, Bongards will keep that plan at the ready. 

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