Thursday Jun 01, 2023

Only restaurant in Morrison surviving as advocates fear food deserts in rural areas

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) – While many restaurants across the state have struggled during the pandemic, the Iowa Restaurant Association said it’s especially worried about the impact in rural parts of the state.

“What we’re seeing is the mom and pop restaurants, they’ve finally just thrown their arms in the air and many of them have put their restaurants on the market to try and sell, and there just aren’t people to come and buy them,” Jessica Dunker, the Iowa Restaurant Association president and CEO, said.

“Our worry as an Association is that those rural areas will be food deserts,” Dunker added.

In Morrison, population 154, there is one place in town to get a bite to eat. The Morris Inn Steakhouse has been a staple for 67 years, surviving 4 owners and, currently, the pandemic.

“We weren’t so worried about making a profit last year as we were to survive like you’re talking about. I don’t want to be the person that shuts the doors on this place,” Tom McLean, the restaurant’s current owner, said.

To people in Morrison, the restaurant is more than a place to grab a tenderloin and onion rings.

“They surprised me for my 50th birthday and so the place was full, wasn’t it,” Eileen Smith, a customer, said.

“It’s always kind of been the hub of town since we don’t have any other place to hang out, and so it’s kind of been a place you know for people to gather,” Susan Keller, a resident, said.

McLean and staff got creative with pandemic restrictions in place, offering to-go orders and, for the first time, delivery.

“For a while, we even went to selling groceries,” McLean said. “We cut our own steaks, make our own salad dressings, dinner rolls, onion rings. We’d just sell them for people to take home.”

They got through until they could become a gathering place once again, but the Iowa Restaurant Association said that, sadly, this hasn’t been the case in small towns statewide.

“It won’t just be a food desert that we see, it will be a big hole on a small town main street and it’s detrimental far beyond food,” Dunker said.

In the western Iowa town of Auburn, the community lost their only remaining restaurant to the pandemic. Leaders in Auburn said they’re working with the Region 12 Council of Governments to try and get funding through the revolving loan program to help bring a new restaurant to the community.

Rick Hunsaker, the Region 12 Council of Governments executive director, recommended that communities reach out to their local council of government to see what assistance may be available for them when it comes to bringing a restaurant to the area. Hunsaker said they’re always interested in creating jobs and helping the state recover.

From towns with less than 200 people to communities of 25,000 or more, locally-owned restaurants in Iowa have been working to make it through this past year.

In Clinton, Rastrelli’s Restaurant has been around for 81 years. Mike Rastrelli, the owner, said his parents started the business and it has been in the family ever since.

“We are like many restaurants struggling to keep staff employed and making sure that we are practicing safe guidelines in the restaurant. We are still working with reduced hours and limited seating,” Rastrelli said.

For many communities, losing a restaurant not only means losing a food option but often times it’s much more than that. It’s losing traditions sometimes decades old, losing a gathering place and in some cases, a local restaurant is the heart of the town. That’s what the Morris Inn Steakhouse has been to Morrison.

“This nation was built on little mom and pop places and I think those are the ones that got hit so we were super fortunate,” McLean said.

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