Construction stressing out, but not sinking, 41st Street restaurants

With traffic jammed, some customers are avoiding going to Gateway Lounge and Perkins, but regulars keep them afloat
Published: May. 4, 2022 at 8:03 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - The manager at Gateway Lounge, and some of his customers, call his bar and grill the “Cheers” of Sioux Falls.

Jackson Rentschler’s grandfather Jack — now 91 — bought the facility in 2003. Jackson’s father Jack, Jr., ran it for the first decade, then handed it off to Jackson, now 35.

“You have all walks of life that come in here,” Jackson Rentschler said. “You have your construction worker, you doctor, your Sanford employee, your nurse, and you’re all under one roof. It’s a fresh-cooked meal, a cold beer, and strong drink.”

It’s those patrons where “everybody knows your name,” as the Cheers theme song goes, that have kept business afloat despite a massive headache for all who go there to take a break from all their worries.

“It’s definitely stresses you out,” Rentschler said of the construction zoo of giant cherry picker cranes, mounds of dirt, and abundance of orange traffic cones surrounding the access road to Gateway.

“There’s no getting around it. You notice the traffic being slower and slower and you see your happy hour crowd get smaller.”

“Cheers” was the pub on a bustling street in Boston in the wildly successful 1980′s TV sitcom. Gateway Lounge resides at one of the busiest intersections in wildly-growing Sioux Falls.

It also one of the city’s most dangerous intersections, which is why construction on a $44 million “diverging diamond” intersection — the first of its kind in Sioux Falls — started a few weeks ago.

The gargantuan project will pay off with better traffic flow and fewer accidents once it is complete sometime in 2024, but it comes at a cost for neighborhood establishments like Gateway Lounge, which has been benefiting from this prime location for 19 years.

From Marion Road to I-29, traffic is crammed into two lane — one going east and one west — instead of the usual two lanes each way. This creates a daunting site and an irritating inconvenience for drivers who need to turn onto Gateway Boulevard to access Gateway Lounge, Perkins, and a few hotels. It is a magnified annoyance for those heading west on 41st and needing to turn left into the neighborhood.

Some drivers opt to wait several minutes to turn left. Others take back routes via 49th Street and/or Terry Avenue. And some just flat out avoid the area altogether.

”It didn’t affect us very much at first and were like, ‘oh, this isn’t too bad,’” said Perkins manager Peter Koss. “But every day, things get moved around a little bit and sometimes it looks too dodgy for the customers to come in.”

Koss said business has kept up overall at Perkins, but has become far more unpredictable.

“Even though we’re meeting predictions on average, (profits go) way up and way down, up and down,” Koss said.

“Some days are slow and other days, it’s very fast. I walk (to work), so I don’t oftentimes see how it is in the front, so I have to scout it out every time I get here to see, ‘is it too hard today, or are we going to have people?’”

This makes staffing a lot more challenging than the days of the reliable and reasonable ebb and flow — literal and figurative — of traffic out front.

“It makes it difficult to tell who we’re going to have come in, mainly,” Koss said. “We don’t know if we’re going to have to call in a lot of people or call some people off.

“Sometimes we have nobody here and a couple servers, and sometimes we have a ton of people here and not enough servers.”

What helps is that a few of Perkins’ servers live in the area and can arrive at work within a few minutes of being called when a rush comes in. They’re eager to do so because they rely on tips and need the work.

Neither manager plans on having to lay off employees. Rentschler said summer is typically the slowest season of the year at Gateway, which relies heavily on packing in crowds to watch sporting events, especially during football season.

“With the current construction, is it going to be a littler slower for them? Absolutely,” Rentschler said of his employees this summer. “There’s no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it. But, a lot of them will have a lot more time to be with their family or go to the lake, so that’ll be alright.”

While late-afternoon drive time traffic is the Krytonite for Gateway Lounge during construction, Perkins is hit hardest after sunset.

”Oftentimes people don’t want to brave the obstacle course coming in here after dark,” Koss said, adding that navigating the area is, really, “not too hard.”

“But what we’re kind of hoping for is getting some of the (construction) workers to come in and eat here, but I haven’t seen to many of them.”

Rentschler, meanwhile, said construction workers have been coming in for lunch at Gateway, which has somewhat help offset the losses he is taking during happy hours (2 to 7 p.m.).

Like Koss, Rentschler fields constant questions from both regular and prospective customers about how difficult it is to get to their restaurants. Both establishments have been quick to explain their situation on social media.

It’s the best way for them to deflect fears, frustrations, and some fiction about the eyesore and madhouse outside.

“We get a lot of comments on our Facebook, Twitter, even Instagram now saying, ‘hey, we saw the construction’s going on,’” Rentschler said. “‘We’re coming from either Brookings or Madison, and, hey, can we get off on that exit?’ Or, ‘we can’t get off on that exit.’ We’re actually going to stay at La Quinta this weekend. Is is accessible to come through?’ We walk them through it, and the people on our social media do a good job of making sure.”

The La Quinta Inn is one of those four hotels surrounding the two restaurants that also has Gateway Boulevard as the only road that gives drivers access from 41st Street. It used to have an entry from 41st, but the construction project blocked it off. A manager from La Quinta — who declined an on-camera interview — said this has affected business, and he cannot find an answer from the city on when he’ll get that paved entrance back.

Construction on this area in front of these businesses should be done by the end of the year. Completion of the entire diverging diamond project is slated for the summer of 2024.

Aggravating as this monstrosity is, both Rentschler and Koss are confident it won’t sink their restaurants, mainly because of loyal customers who, as Koss said, “are coming in to keep us going, just because they want to make sure we’re still here after this, because this is going to be going on for a while.”

Toby Kane, a Gateway Lounge regular for about five years, said the bar “definitely has that ‘Cheers’ feel. You really are family.”

“It’s just important to support local businesses like this when construction’s going down,” Kane said. “Because, you know, there are people, workers, servers, cooks, and everybody that’s trying to make a living.”

Rentschler stays persistent and optimistic partly because Gateway Lounge has so far survived the pandemic and forges ahead during an era of rising inflation, skyrocketing food prices, and a nationwide labor shortage.

“I don’t know what ladder we walked underneath to get to this point,” Rentschler said, “but we’re lucky to have the customers we have.”

He realizes that in two years, the traffic flow will be “fantastic” for Gateway Lounge. And while he knows that, for a while, people are going to avoid 41st Street at around 5:00 — which for 19 years was his rush hour — “you get here at six o’clock and you see all those familiar faces that are still making the trip, and that really reassures you.”

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