Friday, December 19, 2014
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St. Paul businesses hanging on until hockey returns
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The Xcel Energy Center is visible through the windows of the Eagle Street Grille, directly across the street. Business is down more than 60 percent at the restaurant compared to last year, because of the NHL hockey labor dispute. (MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham)
Restaurant owners near St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center are hoping the nearly five month long NHL hockey lockout is coming to an end. Contract talks between team owners and the players union have resumed this week. Some of the family-owned restaurants along West 7th St. have been suffering during the strike. The Wild brings in 18,000 hockey fans into St. Paul two to three times a week.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Eagle Street Grille has taken one of the hardest hits during the lockout. The small bar and restaurant sits right on the corner of 7th and Kellogg -- directly across from the Xcel Energy Center.

"Business is down, year-on-year about 60 to 70 percent," says owner Joe Kasel. "So the hockey strike has effected us quite significantly."

Kasel says he and his business partner opened the Eagle Street Grille in March 2003, with high hopes of capturing hockey fan dollars. In fact, he says the hockey crowds were a big part of his business plan and the key to getting financing to buy the space for his restaurant. Kassel says initially, things were going as planned.

"It was standing-room-only during hockey in February of last year. You couldn't move," says Kasel. "I'm down to myself and my business partner -- we're working 70 or 80 hours a week. I've got a total of five employees, and I went from 33. So I've lost 20 employees that I had to let go because of the hockey strike."

Some of the more established restaurants along West 7th St. have had an easier time weathering the hockey lockout. The Irish bar Patrick McGovern's sits across the street from the Eagle Street Grille. Patrick Boemer has owned McGovern's for 32 years. He says back in 1982, his business plan did not include hockey fans -- in fact, there was no Xcel Energy Center.

Boemer says he expanded his restaurant after the Xcel was built, and hockey crowds account for about 25 percent of his gross sales. He feels badly for his neighbor Joe Kasel at the Eagle Street Grille -- but says it probably isn't wise to rely too much on hockey revenues.

"Hockey is still only 42 or 45 events, and you have 365 days in a year," says Boemer. "So hockey can carry you a little bit, but it's not going to carry you forever."

Boemer says he has a staff of about 70 workers and the lockout has not forced him to layoff anyone. He says because he's been in business over 30 years he has a group of regular customers that keep the bar busy. In fact, Boemer says, some of his regulars are actually happy the Wild are not playing, because it makes it easier for them to find a parking spot and a bar stool.

Back at the Eagle Street Grille, Joe Kasel says he's going to do whatever it takes to get his business back on track.

"We're going to be here in 15 years. If it takes me working 120 hours a week I'll work it," says Kasel. "We're trying to build something for the community, for the customers, and most importantly, I want to have something here for my daughter."

Kasel admits that he was angry when the hockey lockout began.

"You know, how can players and owners argue over millions of dollars, when I'm just barely getting by and trying to survive and make ends meet?" Kasel says. "But the harsh reality is -- although I'm a fan and I've always been a fan -- I run a restaurant. I don't run a hockey team."

Joe Kasel and Patrick Boemer hope their restaurants will be busy this weekend, even without hockey, because of Winter Carnival activities.

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