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For this restaurateur, 2020 was year like no other

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With help from a second round of the federal Paycheck Protection Program, restaurateur Jon Kodama is hopeful his eateries will limp along until spring and be among the local survivors of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We will get back to some kind of normal eventually and the normal is not going to be upside down or opposite of what it was,” said Kodama, who owns four local restaurants and has been in the food service business for 48 years.

“At some point we are going to get back to normal and it is going to be some version of what it was and probably closer to what it was than something different,” he said.

Yes, the seasoned veteran of the food service industry is optimistic despite the crushing past 10 months. He even managed to open a new restaurant, Café Marina in downtown Norwich, last August. But his businesses have been bruised by COVID-19. At the oldest of his holdings, Steak Loft in Mystic, which he helped to open in 1973, business is off more than 55% since the pandemic started.

Breakwater in Stonington Borough, with ample outdoor space, has weathered the state’s COVID-19 restrictions on restaurants the best, with business down just 25%. But at Go Fish in Olde Mistick Village, which recently underwent extensive remodeling, Kodama said business is off 40%.

Across all his restaurants he previously employed about 200 people. Now, he estimates he has about 80.

Initially, when the pandemic arrived, restaurants were forced to close. Then, they were able to offer takeout and, eventually, limited indoor seating. He understands the rules and precautions, but said they have been complicated and costly. As of late last year, well over 600 restaurants in the state have closed and the final number of restaurant failures will likely be in the thousands, according to the Connecticut Restaurant Association.

“Last year, mid-March, we were looking forward to running on all cylinders and having a great year, not a decent year, a great year,” Kodama said. “Things in this area, certainly restaurants in this area, were definitely on the upswing at that point and that’s the tragic part of it. That is why you saw so many new places opening.”

For the Hawaiian-native Kodama, who graduated from Yale University with a business degree in 1972 and got into the restaurant business “because the food and the money were good,” COVID-19 hit like a freight train.

Business at his restaurants was beyond expectations for the first quarter of 2020, he said.

“We had the best 2½ months we ever had, and you know, winter is never good,” he said. “And I remember thinking, even if we had a lousy spring we’d be way ahead."

“And then just out of nowhere...” his voice trails off.

What began as an initial two-week, state-ordered shutdown would lead to a series of extensions with evolving rules and recommendations on how to keep staff and customers safe.

The initial shutdown came on the eve of the St. Patrick’s Day weekend, when Kodama’s restaurants were loaded with corned beef that they didn’t typically have on the menu. Ultimately, he would donate the food, some to St. Vincent de Paul Place in Norwich, including the antipasto served on the popular Steak Loft salad bar.

The meal center’s manager, in a thank you note, would tell Kodama how pleased clients were to dine on the mix of Italian meats, cheeses, olives, roasted peppers and other vegetables, not the usual soup kitchen fare.

Restaurant employees were furloughed and collected unemployment, as well as an additional $600 weekly benefit that expired in late July. With outdoor dining and a resumption of limited indoor service, Kodama struggled to find help. Some former employees had concerns about contracting the virus and declined to return to their jobs, and others stayed away because they were making more not working.

Customers have been reluctant to come back, too, Kodama said, citing industry surveys that show more than 50% of diners, many of them senior citizens, will not eat indoors again until they are vaccinated and the pandemic is under control.

Without the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program, which granted forgivable loans to employers to pay their employees, Kodama said his restaurants would not have survived.

“It was just not sustainable without some kind of help,” he said. And now, with a New England winter making outdoor dining inhospitable and few customers willing to come indoors, the second round of PPP, scheduled to roll out this month, should enable his businesses to survive until the spring, he believes.

But it has been difficult for the industry, not only for the owners, chefs, waiters, bartenders and bussers, but for the food and liquor distributors — for everyone up and down the supply chain, Kodama said.

There have been shortages for restaurants, just like for shoppers at the market, and oftentimes when a delivery is made now, the expectation is cash on delivery plus a payment on what is past due.

Many restaurant operators spent money they couldn’t afford to buy outdoor furniture, heaters, tents and décor when outdoor dining took off, and have invested heavily in cleaning and sanitizing supplies and other pandemic necessities.

“It became obvious that if you didn’t have outdoors (seating), you had nothing. ... But all those people incurred significant costs and I’ve talked to several who said they would never do it again because it just wasn’t worth it,” Kodama said.

He acknowledges he took on the Café Marina in Norwich because it is 90% outdoor dining, and a seasonal business. Breakwater has ample and attractive outdoor space too, but at Steak Loft, on a busy road and with an uneven parking lot, there was never outdoor dining.

Kodama won municipal approvals and had plans drawn up to add a deck there, but in the end it was just too costly.

They put tables outside at Go Fish and customers liked them, which still amazes Kodama.

“If you had asked me before all of this if people would eat in a fenced off location in a parking lot, I would have said you were out of your mind,” he said.

But he’s grateful for his loyal customers.

There is a couple who has come in every single week throughout the pandemic to pick up food to go from Go Fish. They pay for their meals and each week buy a $50 gift certificate.

Kodama’s eyes welled with tears and his voice choked as he struggled to explain what that means to him.

“I have no idea what they are going to do with all those gift certificates,” he said, “But you know they are doing it just to support us and those are the things that keep us going. They can’t replace 50% of our business but they can still support us.”

He’s been through tough times before — recessions and financial downturns, hurricanes and superstorms that have destroyed his properties, meat and gas shortages, and more — but nothing quite like the pandemic.

Is this the toughest year ever?

“Yes,” he said.

And then he continued. “We are closing out the books on 2020 and when you think about how far we are off, the period we were closed, the food we unloaded when we shut down that we either gave away or used for takeout just moving things at cost, so it didn’t end up being waste.”

He knows he is one of many, that he is not alone. It’s been an incredibly difficult year for many people and businesses, including most restaurants. Pizza places and fast-food shops may be the exception, he said.

But he believes he can see better days coming.

“A lot of the things we are doing now are promotional and discounted and just trying to have some activity,” he said. “They are not a formula in a business that will make money for you."

"But our strategy once we knew this was going to be a long haul was to do whatever we had to do to be around when this is over,” he said.

Kodama turned 70 this summer but there was no celebration. His focus, he said, was opening Café Marina and keeping his restaurants going.

“I don’t even know how to categorize it,” he said. “All I know is if there was no PPP, we wouldn’t even be talking now. So, is that an artificial crutch? In a way, yes, but it makes it bearable, survivable I think."

“We went through a lot,” he continued. “And it seems like forever, it seems like a long, long time. But it’s not as bad as the people who have gotten sick or those who have lost people. There are too many of them.”

Better times are coming, Kodama believes.

“I think we will phase out of this mess just like we phased into it,” he said. “And that is why I’m looking forward to spring. God, I’m looking forward to spring. One, because it is spring and two, because outdoor activities will gear up again. And the vaccine will be around."

“I think spring will be great," he said.

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