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Austin restaurants get boost with help from hometown Hormel

By Hannah Yang, Minnesota Public Radio News

At a time when the impacts of COVID-19 have closed the doors of many restaurants — temporarily or permanently — Josh Diaz is busier than ever.

Diaz is the manager and owner of Piggy Blues Bar-B-Que, a restaurant that has been a part of the community in Austin for more than 20 years. While restaurants and bars in the state are limited to takeout service only under statewide orders, the diner-less dining room in Piggy Blues has been converted into an assembly line of to-go containers.

A major driver of the busyness, Diaz said, is Hormel Foods. The hometown corporation has been buying meals by the hundreds from local restaurants like Piggy Blues, the Old Mill and Tendermaid during the pandemic.

It’s part of a program the company has established to thank its employees with the occasional lunch, and to support the city’s economy. Some meals have also gone to members of the nearby Mower County Senior Center.

“We feel that we are a part of the community,” said Jim Sheehan, Hormel’s executive vice president and chief financial officer. And helping small businesses survive the economic uncertainty of 2020 is integral to helping the community survive, he said.

“There was never a discussion about whether we should do it. There was never even a discussion where we pulled out the calculator and figured out how much it was going to cost,” he said. “It was the right thing to do, and we needed to do it.”

Statewide, many small businesses, particularly restaurants and bars, have faced significant financial strain during the pandemic because of COVID-19 restrictions meant to limit or reduce community transmission from the virus. Hospitality Minnesota, an industry group, has estimated that about 150,000 jobs in the sector have been lost since March.

Earlier this month, the Minnesota Legislature approved a bipartisan $216 million business relief package — including $88 million set aside for payments to restaurants, bars and gyms facing financial hardship — which Gov. Tim Walz signed into law. The Minnesota Department of Revenue will issue grants to businesses that faced at least a 30 percent loss in the second and third quarter of 2020 compared to the prior year.

“Our small businesses have made enormous sacrifices to their own bottom lines for the good of our state,” Walz said in a statement when the measure became law. “This is a critical lifeline for those businesses and for the Minnesotans whose livelihoods depend on them.”

But the governor has faced sharp criticism throughout the pandemic from those who say the measures he’s implemented to stem the spread of the coronavirus have gone too far. A group of small businesses statewide has reopened to in-person dining, against the governor’s current orders. State attorney general Keith Ellison has already sued several businesses for reopening against current COVID-19 regulations.

Diaz said he can understand the desperation that some local business owners might be feeling, from the economic strain and the risk of losing their livelihoods. There were weeks, he said, when he wondered if Piggy Blues might need to close or reduce its staff. He also believes, he said, that it’s important to keep the community safe.

But Hormel’s large orders, he said, has offered a bit of relief — for now.

“It just gives us a little more time to get through this kind of rough spot we’re in,” Diaz said. “That’s pretty much what it comes down to — if we can just buy enough time to get through some of the bad times.”

Hormel said that it plans to continue supporting restaurants in Austin through the end of January.