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Neighborhood Cafe owner Kris Masanz decided not to take any chances.

When Gov. Tim Walz closed in-person dining to stop the spread of COVID-19 in early 2020, Masanz's restaurant went dark. When George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer in May of that year, sparking unrest. she kept the doors locked. And even when Walz allowed restaurants to reopen in June, Neighborhood Cafe stayed empty — for more than a year.

Even now, concerns about the surge of the omicron variant have prevented Masanz from throwing open the doors. Neighborhood, located at Selby and Snelling avenues, was once open morning, noon and night — seven days a week. The hours now are 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

In a recent interview with Eye On St. Paul, Masanz talked about her early days in the business and why she's hesitant to fully reopen nearly two years after the pandemic first closed her doors.

This interview was edited for length.

Q: Where was your first restaurant job?

A: I started working at Jerry's Foods on Robert [Street] in West St. Paul when I was 16. It was a grocery store with a small restaurant. I went to Simley High School but dropped out at 15. I got my GED, but I just loved working in restaurants.

In 1991, I started working at Bakers Square on Grand [Avenue], where Salut is now. I had other jobs — at a warehouse, for a chiropractor. I even did phone surveys. But my passion was restaurants and cooking.

Q: How did you become the owner of Neighborhood Cafe?

A: I worked at Bakers Square for a little bit. But it was so corporate. There was a script you had to follow. You would be timed and scored on your performance. It was crazy.

I like to freestyle, so I went to work at the Uptowner [a diner on Grand and Lexington avenues]. I ended up working there 10 years. Sometimes I waitressed. Sometimes I cooked. I ended up doing everything from ordering to doing payroll.

The guy who owned Uptowner owned this place [Neighborhood Cafe]. They asked me to help get things going, do soups, specials. After a year, one of the guys wanted to sell his shares. I bought him — and then the other owner — out [eight years ago].

Q: Why did you stay closed, even after you could have done delivery and, later, fully reopened?

A: Number one, I don't think breakfast travels well. As far as doing delivery, that was a concern. Finding help was a concern, because everyone was making more money on unemployment — my staff included. And, pre-vaccination, it was scary and it was worrisome and we had things going on [with health] in my family. Part of me was like "I can't be out working in the public."

Q: How did you survive?

A: I pinched pennies. I scraped. [Federal] PPP [loan] payments made it possible for me to pay my rent and keep my spot. I still had to let everyone go [until reopening May 19]. I have 13 people now, including two new. We had 25 before.

I have a dedicated crew. They came back even though they were making less money than not working. They were sick of staying at home.

Q: What's the key to making it?

A: I don't know yet. [laughs]

I'm still here because I'm frugal, I guess. I came into this business knowing that it wasn't going to be a multimillion-dollar business. I didn't have those expectations. But my employees and their happiness, and paying them well, has always been more important to me than my bottom line, actually.

Q: Do you mind telling me what you pay?

A: The top cook is $20 an hour. The ones who haven't been here as long are at $19. I'm hiring hosts starting at $14 an hour. My dishwasher is at $16. The wait staff here are the only ones who make minimum. [St. Paul's current minimum wage at workplaces with six to 100 workers is $11 an hour.]

Q: Yum! Kitchen and Bakery recently opened next door to a lot of buzz. Are you worried?

A: I think it's going to be great for us, actually. It's going to bring new people to the area, because maybe they've had [Yum!'s food] in St. Louis Park. Any time you're bringing new people into the neighborhood, your chances of gaining new customers are that much better.

Q: What's it going to take for you to come back to pre-pandemic levels?

A: I don't know. We thought when unemployment dropped off, we would have a lot of people. I thought the phone would ring off the hook. And that wasn't the case. It didn't happen. But we have to remember, so many people died. People are still worried.

Q: Does that make you nervous?

A: Oh yeah. The whole thing makes me nervous. It's still hard for people to push forward. But it'll come.