Restaurants closing in Kansas City. Illustration by Joshua Cooper/The Beacon

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From the Filipino pickled condiment atchara to the sizzling pork dish sisig, everything about KC Pinoy was inspired by Chrissy Nucum’s grandmother.

What started out as a Filipino food truck in Kansas City grew into a brick-and-mortar restaurant in 2018. Even the space itself was reminiscent of Nucum’s grandmother’s dining room — family photos on the wall, tubs of silverware and sauces on the table. The word “manyaman,” meaning “delicious” in Kapampangan, the native language of Nucum’s family, was painted on another wall. The small, cozy dining room on East Genesee Street in the West Bottoms was, for the last two years, the setting for chef-owner Nucum to share her grandmother’s Filipino dishes with Kansas City. 

But KC Pinoy’s dining room saw its last day of service Sep. 26. 

“There was really no way for us to continue,” Nucum said. “That was really the hardest decision.”

Nucum isn’t the only local restaurant owner to make that tough decision. Faced with a pandemic that has lasted for most of the year, where dining out comes with increased public health risks, dozens of independent restaurants in Kansas City have closed their doors, either temporarily or permanently. From James Beard award-winning restaurants like Bluestem to restaurants that introduced Kansas Citians to foods from across the globe, like the house-made ramen noodles of Shio Ramen, local restaurants — and the workers who power them — have not been spared by the pandemic. 

In Kansas City, service industry workers have been among the hardest hit, losing their jobs at a higher rate than any other industry in the metropolitan area. At the beginning of 2020, the leisure and hospitality industry employed about 108,000 people in the Kansas City metro. By April, following waves of stay-at-home orders, that number dropped to a little over 58,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Bill Teel, executive director of the Missouri Restaurant Association, said restaurant closures hurt the whole community.

“Kansas City’s had a great restaurant scene,” Teel said. “Day by day, drip by drip, a lot of those are just falling by the wayside.”

The year that changed everything

2020 was supposed to be a breakout year for KC Pinoy. Before the pandemic, Nucum said, the restaurant had events scheduled for most of the year. There were catering events, weddings — the whole month of June was already booked. 

“Then March happened,” Nucum said. “That was when the first stay-at-home order from Mayor Lucas came out. And that was kind of the beginning of the end for us.”

From adapting to shutdown orders and new business restrictions to worrying about keeping staff members and customers safe, restaurants have faced a mountain of new challenges this year as owners tried to keep their businesses afloat. 

According to a survey by the National Restaurant Association, more than 110,000 restaurants have closed permanently or long term during this pandemic. Data from OpenTable also found that indoor dining in Kansas City was down 60% on Dec. 21 when compared to the same date last year.

Shio Ramen has been serving its house-made ramen noodles on Broadway Boulevard in Kansas City since 2016. But because of the pandemic, the restaurant closed its doors Dec. 13. (Courtesy of Shio Ramen)

The end of local stay-at-home orders in May led to a “hit and miss summer,” said Miki DeHaven, a manager at Shio Ramen and wife of chef-owner Patrick Curtis. As indoor dining declined, Shio Ramen did more carryout orders and started selling ramen kits. 

“When we hit the fall, and we thought, it’s probably not going to get any better anytime soon, you sort of come to the realization that this might be a good pausing point,” she said. “And so we’re trying to think of it not as a hard closure.”

Adapting restaurant dining space to the city’s updated dining restrictions was particularly difficult for restaurants with small spaces. Shio Ramen normally seats up to 25 people inside its dining room; operating at 50% capacity to follow local COVID-19 emergency orders meant only being able to serve about 10 customers. Still, it was difficult to keep relying on takeout. 

“We’ve been staying afloat in that way,” DeHaven said. “But it’s difficult as a privately owned, non-chain restaurant to survive on that indefinitely.”

‘We were absolutely essential’

When Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas announced stay-at-home orders in the spring, Howard Hanna, chef-owner of Ça Va in Westport and The Rieger in downtown Kansas City, thought about his staff and the restaurant workers who were suddenly out of work, without any guarantees that their jobs or places of employment would survive. 

Throughout the pandemic, Kansas City’s leisure and hospitality industry has consistently seen the sharpest declines in employment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Preliminary figures show that the leisure and hospitality sector employed about 90,000 people this November, a decrease of 19% since last year. 

Hanna wanted to find a way to help industry workers and also keep his own staff employed during the shutdown order. So Hanna turned The Rieger into the Crossroads Community Kitchen, where Rieger staff prepared meals for service industry workers in Kansas City on a pay-as-you-can model. The idea quickly took off; a GoFundMe to support its operations and pay staff has raised over $66,000. The Crossroads Community Kitchen served about 85,000 meals until it shut down in September because funding had run out. 

“We decided to do the community kitchen to kind of try to answer all three of those questions: to find a way to keep our team together and working, to try to salvage all this food that would otherwise go to waste, and then, most importantly, to take care of people in our community who are hurting,” Hanna said. 

Nicole Bax of KC Pinoy was one of thousands of service industry workers who lost their jobs this year because of a restaurant closure. Throughout the pandemic, the former kitchen manager saw how the pandemic caused business to slow. She was heartbroken when Nucum told her the news about the restaurant closing down.

“I don’t really know what to do if I’m not cooking,” Bax said. “I mean, this has been the industry I’ve been in for over a decade.” 

Brian Crilly recently worked his last shift at Shio Ramen. Though he’s sad about its closing, he feels a mix of relief over being able to stay at home and not put his family at risk of contracting the virus and anxiety over the future of the industry. He may apply for unemployment.

“I don’t know if, after the pandemic is over, the restaurant industry will go back to normal,” he said. “And if people will have confidence to go out to eat the way they did before, if there will be job offerings in that line of work.”

With restaurant workers often living paycheck to paycheck with no health insurance or paid sick leave, Hanna said the pandemic has further underscored the inequalities already existent in the industry. 

“We were absolutely essential. … That didn’t just happen this year, and that didn’t just happen because of this disease — we always were,” Hanna said. “We weren’t respected in that way. We weren’t paid in that way. We weren’t loved in that way.”

Howard Hanna, executive chef and co-owner of The Rieger Hotel Grill and Exchange, served his final meal at the restaurant Oct. 31, after months of uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. Howard is also the chef-owner of Ça Va in Westport, which also closed down at the end of 2020. (Zachary Linhares/The Beacon)

‘We will come back’

For Hanna, shutting down The Rieger means an end to a restaurant that took years of hard work. Dec. 20 was supposed to be the 10-year anniversary of the opening of The Rieger, but it didn’t make it — its last day of service was Oct. 31. 

“To miss that, it hurts,” Hanna said. “It was my dream. The Rieger is the restaurant I always wanted.”

Despite being one of the hardest-hit industries from the pandemic, restaurants have seen little direct federal aid. The primary form of aid came from the Paycheck Protection Program, which was authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in April to provide loans to qualifying businesses to pay for two weeks’ worth of payroll. But the program’s funds mainly went to big businesses and the program closed in August. 

While KC Pinoy received a PPP loan that Nucum said helped with payroll, there wasn’t assistance for other costly expenses for restaurants, like rent and utilities. 

“It was a good Band-Aid,” she said of the PPP loans. “But unfortunately, it wasn’t even close to being enough.”

Nucum wants Congress to pass the Restaurants Act, or some form of direct relief to restaurants. The Restaurants Act would provide $120 billion in relief to restaurants, bars, cafes and caterers. Funds could cover wide swaths of restaurant costs, from payroll to rent to utilities. 

The longer the pandemic continues without relief for restaurants, the more restaurants could shut down. But owners and service industry workers are holding out hope — and the minds behind places like The Rieger aren’t leaving Kansas City. 

“We will come back,” Hanna said. 

“We built this in the first place. We’ll build it again.”

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Celisa Calacal covers economics and civic engagement issues for The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter @celisa_mia or email her at celisa@thebeacon.media.