VERNDALE, MINN. - The fish houses are full, but nobody's landing any crappies.
Instead, diners in this central Minnesota town are reeling in chicken, steak and French fries in the parking lot outside the Pirates Den.
As the temperature last week dipped into single digits, servers hustled through the cold night bearing platters of food and cocktails to patrons basking in the glow of space heaters in the kind of village usually spotted on wintertime Minnesota lakes.
"We love it! It just feels so Minnesotan," said Becky Munston, who made the 30-mile trip from Perham to celebrate the birthdays of her husband, Mike, and their friend Tim Wacker.
In a nearby hut, Judy Erdahl and Brenda Windels, both of Wadena, were enjoying their first restaurant meal in a long time.
"Why not?" Erdahl said. "Everything else is just drive-through or takeout."
Erdahl and Windels said they weren't worried about dining safely together. Both are longtime health care workers; Windels is a retired registered nurse, and Erdahl screens patients for COVID-19 at the hospital.
By 6 p.m., six of the eight fish houses were filled with groups of two to five diners, a good turnout for a winter weeknight. It's what Pirates Den owner Brian Hagen was hoping for when he set up the fish houses in mid-December.
"People are so sick of the confinement and not being able to go out," Hagen said. "Since we first posted it on Facebook, the phone has been ringing off the wall."
Hagen, who owns a small-engine shop, lawn service and fish house manufacturing company, said the idea came to him when he looked at some unsold fish houses in his inventory. Why not use them at the restaurant?