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Opening A Restaurant During The Pandemic: “Got Pretty Political Very Quickly”


South Dakota’s response to COVID-19 presented a new generation of COVID entrepreneurs a unique opportunity, one that wasn’t possible?everywhere.??? 


Alessio?Di?Sabatino?grew up in Rome but?he’s lived in the United States for?more than?twenty-five years. He owned a restaurant in California but sold it in March?2020,?right before the state shut down.?? 

“So, I had a chance to decided what I want to go to my life,” he said.? 

Di?Sabatino?moved to Rapid City. He visited a friend here once and loved it. He?began looking for?restaurant space almost immediately and last November, he opened an authentic Italian restaurant?downtown.??? 

“The local community support us so much,” he said. “And I love this state. I love the people, I love the air, I love everything about it.”? 

He named it?Sabatino’s, after himself, and?he said business?is?going?well-- it’s hard to get a table on weekends. But as much as?Di?Sabatino?loves South Dakota, he came here for another reason.?? 

“South Dakota was the only state open in America.?So?nobody wore a mask. We didn't have any problem,” he said.? 

South Dakota never issued?statewide?business shutdowns or mask requirements.?Di?Sabatino?likes Governor Kristi?Noem, said she’s doing a great job, and has no complaints about how she handled the pandemic. His?business challenge comes in another form.?? 

“The only problem that we find here in South Dakota is employees. It's hard to find them because they get paid to stay home and they don't want to?work.“? 

Hiring workers isn’t a problem for everyone. Darcy Green is a?one-?woman?operation.?? 

“I shop, I cook, I prep, I chop I box, I get in my car, I deliver, I load, I unload.”?? 

She started?Brosia?Bowl?last year?in Brookings.?It’s entirely vegan. Customers?in the area?can order meals online and Green delivers?right to their door.??She already had plans to?start the business?before the pandemic hit, but?then city leaders?imposed temporary restrictions on local businesses and?restaurants and Green saw an opportunity.?? 

“And I was like, I guess we're delivering hardcore now,” she laughed. “I just like told as many people as I could and like, I?deliver,?and I deliver for free. Because at that point, it was so early in this pandemic, restaurants hadn't figured out the delivery thing yet.”? 

It worked. She was?swamped with orders and?she?thinks she knows?the reason why.? 

“Sorry to say but you know, I am one of those ones who did benefit from?things closing down?because I was willing to mask up and glove?up,” she said. “I?think people really appreciated the steps that I was taking to make sure that I was cautious.”??? 

Green said she’s grateful because she knows how hard some restaurants struggled last year. But she had bills to pay.?So,?she went for it.?? 

Green said the pandemic?made?her?more?serious?about her business?because there was no backup plan. That feeling is?pretty?common during times of recession.?? 

Brienne?Maner?is the Executive Director of Startup Sioux Falls, a nonprofit that offers support and resources to entrepreneurs. When the pandemic hit, her staff geared up.? 


“And?it's like, no better time to be thinking about what's my next professional move? Maybe I should start this business. I've been sitting on this idea for the last 10 years,” she said. “Our last major recession back in 2008 was when some of the greatest entrepreneurial ventures of our time were formed.?So,?for us, and I hate to say this, we saw it as an opportunity.”? 

But?Maner?said the pandemic differed from the Great Recession.?? 

“It was a really difficult thing for so many of us to navigate, because there were no cut and dry rules as to what you could do,” she said.? 

There were no statewide COVID restrictions in South Dakota. Some cities and counties issued their own public health?requirements, but many?business owners had to decide what?to do for themselves.?? 

Sara Benson opened the Hello Hi last fall. It’s a cocktail bar in Sioux Falls. She and her business partner signed their lease in February 2020.? 

“So little did we know that there would be a global pandemic.?That wasn't part of the plan,”?she said.  

Things got messy and Benson said they had to change a lot of their original plans. The opening was delayed for months, and when they finally did?open,?they implemented a strict mask policy.? 

“What was seemingly a pretty public health issue got pretty political very quickly,” she said. “You're very visibly kind of telling people what you thought on certain issues.”? 

Benson said their mask requirement was designed to keep their staff safe and?most customers respected the?guidelines. But not all.?Some?people walked out?when asked to wear a mask and?a few?got confrontational,?even?threatened violence.??The bar?received?some negative online reviews. Benson was frustrated.? 

However, she?realizes the new cocktail bar?owes its existence to the fact that South Dakota never shut down.?? 

Despite everything Benson is proud of her decisions. She wouldn’t change a thing. Except maybe?next time – she won’t?open?a?new business?during a global pandemic.???