LUVERNE — When Minnesota bars and restaurants were asked to shut their doors in mid-March to help flatten the curve as the global pandemic, COVID-19, spread in the state, owners of some establishments sought creative ways to still make a living.
It wasn’t much of a stretch for Chef Skyler Hoiland, owner of The Bluestem in Luverne. When the doors to his restaurant were forced to close March 21, his efforts instead pivoted to an already brisk catering business across the border in South Dakota, where state leaders kept commerce on track and gatherings unrestricted.
To supplement that income, he developed a weekly take-and-bake program from his catering kitchen, Bluestem Catering Co., located in a renovated building on Luverne’s Main Street. The take and bakes have been so successful that when Minnesota restaurants were finally cleared to reopen, Hoiland kept the doors of The Bluestem shuttered.
Last week, Hoiland announced to his staff that the restaurant will not be reopening after nearly eight years in business. He doesn’t yet know what will happen with the building. Prior to becoming The Bluestem, the building was widely known in the region as home of the Magnolia Steakhouse.
“There’s still a lot of things to do with the closing of the restaurant,” Hoiland said. “We’re still trying to figure out … whether we put it up for sale or hold onto it.”
Hoiland was able to keep about half a dozen of the restaurant’s employees to work for him in his catering business, he said.
It was nearly four years ago that Hoiland purchased a former vet clinic on Luverne’s Main Street to renovate into a catering kitchen. For the past three years, he’s operated both the restaurant and catering kitchen, leaving little time for anything else. Between weddings, Christmas parties, business events and other catering work, he was busy.
It’s not uncommon to cater two or three weddings in a weekend, with some catering jobs feeding up to 1,000 people.
This year, while three-fourths of his wedding catering gigs in Minnesota were either cancelled or rescheduled due to COVID, catering of weddings in South Dakota has continued.
“Probably 60% of our weddings were going to be in South Dakota, so that hasn’t changed at all,” Hoiland said, adding that Bluestem Catering Co. will go anywhere within a 90-mile radius of its Luverne catering kitchen without an extra travel charge.
The new take-and-bake program complements the catering business quite well.
“We started a take and bake out of our catering operation right after the restaurant had to close with COVID,” Hoiland said earlier this week. “We’re doing pickup on the west side of our building (at 602 E. Main St.); it’s more of a grab-and-go situation.”
A new menu is posted each Sunday night or Monday morning on the Bluestem Catering Co. Facebook page, and people have until noon on Thursday to either call in or email their order and set a time for pick-up. Pick-up times are between 2 and 6 p.m. on Thursdays and between 1 and 6 p.m. on Fridays.
The meals feed anywhere from two to six people, with different options for portion counts and their corresponding prices posted with each new menu.
“We’re doing it on a weekly basis as we are still catering in South Dakota right now and keeping busy with that,” Hoiland said, adding that the program has garnered a great response.
“I think we’re pulling people from everywhere,” he said.
The family-style meals included such offerings as roast beef dinners during the late winter and spring, but this summer he’s focused more on grill-out meals.
“It’s Midwestern food, for sure,” Hoiland added. “We’re doing some pasta bakes and sandwich meals — barbecued beef brisket and picnic-style (offerings) for the summer.”
Every once in a while he mixes things up with Asian or Greek dish options.
Eventually, Hoiland would like to make online ordering a possibility to make the process more efficient. He sees the take-and-bake program as something that’s here to stay.
“For me, the hospitality industry from now on is going to change,” he said. “Families are staying together now and getting more of that Sunday night supper back into the home — whether it’s them doing the cooking or they get a take-and-bake meal.”
Hoiland said gathering with family around the dinner table is one of his greatest childhood memories. They talked to each other and enjoyed good food, and he said it’s neat to see that happening again. It could just be something positive to come from a global pandemic.
“We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing, and we couldn’t be more happy,” Hoiland said.