Restaurant survived pandemic and derecho: Ongoing road construction could end it

Runt's excavator
Construction equipment sits in front of Runt’s Munchies at Fifth Avenue and Sixth Street SE on Friday, Sept. 24, 2021, in Cedar Rapids. CREDIT: Cindy Hadish

More than four years ago, Jess Johnson opened Runt’s Munchies, a diminutive restaurant in a historic building on the edge of downtown Cedar Rapids.

Runt's Munchies
Jess Johnson is shown inside her restaurant, Runt’s Munchies, in Cedar Rapids. CREDIT: Cindy Hadish

“We’ve survived COVID and the derecho, but we can’t survive this,” she said of the pandemic, Iowa’s 2020 hurricane-strength straight-line windstorm, and now, the months-long road construction enveloping her small business at 529 Fifth Ave. SE.

The project, which includes roadway, sidewalk and utility replacement on Sixth Street SE, started in early July and is expected to end by mid-November.

“We’re not going to be here when construction is over,” Johnson predicted.

Since construction began, a decreasing number of customers have been finding their way to the restaurant, at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Sixth Street, just a block or so from the downtown public library.

Both Sixth Street and portions of Fifth Avenue SE are closed in front of Runt’s Munchies in Cedar Rapids. CREDIT: Cindy Hadish

Johnson noted traffic that previously came down Sixth Street is nonexistent due to the road closure, and even the parking on Fifth Avenue is torn up in front of her business, making access difficult.

“There’s really only one way to get here,” she said of the library route from Fifth Avenue, but many customers would rather not navigate the construction.

Runt’s Munchies had built a loyal following until the road project began, which also put an end to any passersby who might happen upon the restaurant.

Built around 1900, the building has served a multitude of purposes, including a grocery store, comic book, baseball card shop and previously was home to the Caribbean Kitchen, a Jamaican restaurant.

Johnson has filled the interior with quirky pig decor and wall signs, while retaining the historic nature of the building, including the black and white checkerboard floor.

“This has been my dream,” she said of Runt’s Munchies, which serves tiny pizzas; “fried goodness,” such as loaded mashed potato bombs; sliders; salads; wraps and unique egg rolls, including the “F-Bomb” with Buffalo chicken, jalapenos and pepper jack cheese, all at incredibly reasonable prices. For example, a recent lunch special featured chicken noodles over mashed potatoes with a side salad for just $6.59.

Then there are the decadent desserts like cookies & cream cupcakes, Fruity Pebbles cookies and to-die-for blonde brownies.

Coverage by KCRG-TV9 early on in the construction helped shine a spotlight on her plight, Johnson said, but customers all came at once, overwhelming the 22-seat diner, and since then, the numbers have dropped considerably as the road project has dragged on.

She doesn’t fault the construction crew, which has been on schedule, but wishes the project had been done in phases or the city had been more forthcoming about the extent of the excavation, which went beyond Sixth Street and onto Fifth Avenue.

“I’m not going down without a fight, but determination doesn’t pay the bills,” Johnson said, adding she is unsure of her plans if she does have to close. “I’d have to get a job because I still have debt.”

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