Martino Virgillo grew up emulating the work ethic of his Italian immigrant family — which worked well when he collaborated with his mother on family recipes and opened Sorrento Cucina Due.
These days, the long, hard hours are a necessity instead of a choice to keep his business open. Since the pandemic and a sluggish return to downtown offices, he has fewer employees. He also had to move to the CenturyLink building, closing his Northstar Center location because of building renovations there.
"I'm OK, just because I'm doing a lot of it myself," Virgillo said. "I don't have four employees like I did."
In the past three years, drastic transformations to downtown Minneapolis have forced local business owners such as Virgillo to tweak their business models. Bustling lunch breaks and lively happy hours at downtown restaurants are still a distant memory for many as hybrid work and shorter days at the office take hold.
Mondays and Fridays present the greatest challenge, as that is when the skyways are still nearly empty.
Taking it day by day
Because the number of customers downtown on any given day differs greatly because of hybrid work, it's hard for businesses such as the Local and Kieran's Irish Pub to staff accordingly, said Valid Serhan, president of Cara Irish Pubs, which owns the two downtown restaurants.
And when special occasions or events aren't happening on a given night, it's more challenging to stay profitable.
"We do feel the pinch when there's no conventions or events," Serhan said. "It's just hard to replace that number of people."
Once in a while, after a big game or convention, Serhan feels the same energy as pre-pandemic Minneapolis.
"There was a big convention and I was talking to people in the pub and they were like, 'We love this city.' " he said. "It was good to know. It was like nothing happened, you know? You love to hear that."
Especially for skyway businesses, with Monday and Friday business noticeably thinner still, managers and owners say they have had to get creative.
Sorrento Cucina has cut its menu in half. Gray Fox Coffee, with three locations in downtown office buildings, has trimmed staffing on Mondays and Fridays and reduced open hours.
For an industry with slim margins, a drop of even 10% can be fatal.
Still, Chris Bjorling, owner of Gray Fox, said that business is back up to 80% of pre-pandemic levels. Owners of Sorrento Cucina and Murray's steakhouse said their revenue is about 70% of what it was during 2018 and 2019.
Weekend traffic is not making up for the loss of weekday revenue either.
"There was a time when downtown was the place to go," said Tim Murray, owner of Murray's, a staple restaurant that opened in Minneapolis 77 years ago. "It was first in many people's minds when looking for something to do, and that's changed a little bit the last two years."
The next step, Murray said, is to make downtown a more appealing place for locals to visit, while perceived safety concerns and entertainment options in the suburbs make people more hesitant to come downtown.
There's also a perception that people don't come downtown at all. But in 2022, 8.6 million visitors went downtown for sports, concerts and other entertainment events, according to the Minneapolis Downtown Council. That number marked a 68.6% increase from the previous year.
"I would say from mid- or end of 2021 to now, it's night and day, when it comes to safety," said Serhan of Cara Irish Pubs.
Virgillo agreed, adding that downtown isn't as bad as it's made out to be.
Optimizing a different future
It's not just restaurants experiencing ongoing pandemic-era woes. Shopping in the downtown core also is down significantly.
Laurine Lewis, who owns Sew Biz Tailoring, adjusted her business model because her clients were no longer coming to her on their breaks from work. Now, she attracts customers from all over the city who are drawn to her 42 years of experience, even if it means they have to make the trip downtown.
Demand for quality tailoring hasn't died: When the economy is good, consumers buy new clothes and get them altered, Lewis said. And when money is tight, they bring Lewis older clothes that need patching up.
Business was temporarily cut in half for two years because of the pandemic. "But since then, we've come back roaring because of the weddings that were postponed," Lewis said.
In fact, she's having trouble keeping up with demand and is struggling to find trained employees.
"I don't think we're going to fall victim to AI," she said.
The Minneapolis Downtown Council is hoping to create more opportunities for locals to start businesses downtown and find successful niches, through programs for entrepreneurs, said Shannon Fitzgerald, director of downtown partnerships for the council.
For now, business owners such as Virgillo plan to stay on their toes — and as optimistic as possible. They're expecting more office workers to return in the coming months and bolster their sales.
"I think you're going to see more people in the offices," Virgillo said. "We hope."