Two hours away, a different business reality

by Tom Coombe
Echo editor
“I’ll need a table for four.”
For the first time since mid-March, those words came out of my mouth on a quiet yet sunny Memorial Day weekend afternoon in Superior, Wisc.
A milestone birthday, a shopping trip and the coronavirus made for an odd yet satisfying journey a couple weeks back.
If one would have asked me in February where I might celebrate a 50th birthday dinner, Grizzly’s in Superior wouldn’t have made the top-10.
Scratch that, it wouldn’t have made the top-100.
No disrespect to the franchise or the friendly staff at the business across the bridge from Duluth, but only the circumstances brought us there for dinner.
In a typical year, Hollee may have whisked me off to Minneapolis for a night at J.D. Hoyt’s or one of our other Twin Cities favorites.
With the entire family, a birthday may have been marked with walleye or prime rib at the Grand Ely Lodge or a night at the Ely Steakhouse, the Boathouse or Insula.
But the times and the state of Minnesota made that impossible, so it was time to improvise.
For better than two months, Virginia was as far as I had ventured. For a frequent traveler who often logs 1,000 miles or more per week during the spring, it was a period of immobility that probably hasn’t been matched in 40 years or more.
But our quest for a new couch and plans for a summer home improvement project took us out of town for the day. Peg came along to help watch Macy as we shopped and off we went.
The first surprise came in Duluth during a pit stop at Target, where the masked and maskless intermingled and shopped as if it was 2019, and the parking lot filled to the point where one thought the next holiday might be Christmas and not Memorial Day.
Next was a mini-tour of Duluth and some of the old stomping grounds, including drives by the old and new Duluth East high schools and a college house on Park Point.
It was a trip down memory lane for me and at times revealing to my wife and mother-in-law. For six-year-old Macy? She seemed more impressed with her Kindle than any stories about her dad’s younger years.
Bound and determined for a “regular” dinner, I pointed the van onto I-35 and eventually the Blatnik Bridge.
A few days earlier, the Wisconsin Supreme Court nullified their governor’s executive orders and the doors opened up almost immediately at their places of business.
Thanks to our cell phones, we found Grizzly’s near another busy shopping area and in we went, not quite knowing what to expect.
Save for a few tables out of service to allow customers more room to spread out, Grizzly’s looked like any pre-COVID Grizzlies in the upper Midwest.
In many ways, it was a sight for sore eyes.
We had the full experience. Some appetizers started us off. I relaxed with a beverage and the flat iron steak and cheesy hash browns topped it off. Staff members were cheerful, happy to be back at work, and there were at least 40-50 customers inside in the middle of afternoon.
Not the location I was used to, but the experience didn’t discriminate and we had a wonderful time.
All it took was a two-hour drive to find a different and more familiar reality.
On the drive back to Ely it was hard not to think of those who operate similar businesses in Minnesota.
The economic fallout of the coronavirus has hit business owners especially hard.
It’s hard not to feel for restaurant and bar operators, not to mention those who own and run hair salons and fitness centers.
All have faced more than two months of either zero or very limited business.
Hair salons only reopened this week, and restaurants and bars remain restricted to outdoor operations only. Fitness centers remain shuttered.
After visiting Superior, it’s even harder to justify and it appears that state lines and political preference have taken control - with our business owners stuck in an unenviable middle.
They deserve a chance. They deserve better. Before it’s too late.