Greg Lindberg feels like two years have passed since the beginning of March.
He’s reinvented his business model at least a dozen times since then, the unofficial start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
None of it mattered for the Dundee Dell, the restaurant he bought in 2016 and that has been a midtown staple for 86 years.
“None of this is my fault, or your fault,” he said. “But we’re all paying the price.”
The Dundee Dell’s closure is a loss for midtown Omaha. It’s also a warning sign: While some restaurants, including some that Lindberg owns, are surviving and even thriving during COVID-19, another type of Omaha restaurant risks extinction.
The Dundee Dell is, quite possibly, the tip of the iceberg.
“For whatever reason, the concept or the neighborhood, people aren’t coming out for it,” Lindberg said of the Dell. “Some places do well. Some do not.”
Lindberg’s own restaurants illustrate what might thrive and what might not during the pandemic.
His three locations of Shucks Fish House and his breakfast spot, Bailey’s, are bouncing back. At Absolutely Fresh Seafood, he’s done double the amount of business he usually does.
The Dundee Dell, he said, lagged. A lot.
It’s clear that a few Omaha restaurants are experiencing booming business in spite of the pandemic, thriving mostly on their steady takeout business and nimble use of social media to get the word out about daily offerings and family-style, take-home meals.
Some restaurants, the Dundee Dell among them, aren’t top of mind when it comes to takeout. When I think about the Dell, I think about eating hot fish and chips coated in malt vinegar alongside a cold beer while sitting tightly squeezed in a booth with friends. Or meeting after work for a whisky and gossip with fellow journalists. I don’t think of warming up fried fish in my home kitchen. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one.
Lindberg put some money into the place, he said, fixing things that needed fixing for years that he’d ignored because business was on a slide.
“I just thought ‘if you build it, they will come,’” he said. “We saw a little improvement, but not the slow, steady growth I was literally banking on. It just never happened.”
The Dell made much of its money as a late-night bar and hangout spot for the under-30 crowd. That business has dried up, both because of the pandemic and because of the rising popularity of other neighborhoods, like The Blackstone District and Benson.
“The time has changed. The Dell just didn’t work, and I still don’t know why,” Lindberg said.
We’re nearly four months into COVID, and all deeply tired of staying home. I know I’m looking forward to the next time I’m in a restaurant dining room, but statistics and reality keep me home.
The scary, both for diners and for restaurants, is that it could be many more months — 5? 10? — before the easing of the health risk allows the scene to return to a new normal.
What that means for most Omaha restaurants is dire almost any way you slice it.
Lindberg said the crowds slowly coming back to Shucks and Bailey’s are often the familiar faces of former regulars. But things aren’t as they were.
He used to be able to predict what those guests would do: Cocktail. Appetizer. Another cocktail. Dinner.
Now? Cocktail. Dinner. Check. The visits have decreased in length by around half.
“They aren’t lingering,” he said.
Interestingly, Lindberg’s Absolutely Fresh is doing twice the business, if not more, than usual. That success gets to the heart of the matter: People are still, mostly, eating at home.
I’m among them. Diners who still want to support local even if it’s not in a dining room are likely supporting businesses like the local fish market. And it doesn’t hurt that many home cooks are bored with their usual recipes and want to try something new. (See: the explosion of bread baking.)
“Fish I think is always sort of daunting, not deservedly so,” he said. “But if you haven’t cooked it, you start experimenting.”
The Dell’s closing isn’t the first casualty of the pandemic — several restaurants I know of have quietly closed over the past few months. I will let you know when those closings do become official.
Others, like Forno, in the Blackstone district, and now the Dell, have publicly announced. But let’s be clear: Many more Omaha restaurants, especially those that can’t make it off of takeout and delivery, are in danger.
It’s sad to see a local business go under. Even more so for one that has been operating for 80+ years.
But times change. Habits and tastes change, evolve. This has been going on since forever.
These new districts that revitalize old areas and turn them into nifty little restaurant/bar/shopping areas are great, but I think a city can only support so many of them. I feel like we’ve reached a point where each new district (or whatever synonym for district the spot is using) is just cannibalizing customers from the last new or trendy district.