Restaurants like JK Table are dependent on the office crowd and have adapted to the work-from-home era

People who don't already know about JK tables are unlikely to get it.

Over the course of a decade, a couple blocks from Highway 100 and I-494 in a windy Edina office park, the family-owned Japanese restaurant has grown by word of mouth to attract customers for sushi, rice bowls, soups and sandwiches. Have believed the hype. For years, this location – on the ground floor of a medium-sized beige office tower that was identical to its adjacent tower – made it a hotspot for workers in nearby offices who came here for weekday breakfast and lunch. Used to pack for food.

However, as far as each restaurant is concerned, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated an already difficult business. JK Table survived thanks to loyal customers who ordered takeout and bought gift cards, as well as the city's support through the federal CARES and American Rescue Plan acts, owners Hiroshi and Junko Kumamoto said. But in this new world of working from home, business models will have to forever evolve: a common story for restaurants serving breakfast, lunch or happy hour to the office crowd.

“After COVID,” Hiroshi began as the couple prepared to start a recent Wednesday morning, Junko jumped in to finish the sentence: “Everything changed.”

Growth has been key to the survival of Twin Cities restaurants that depend on workplace traffic from strip malls to skyways. In Minnetonka, Yoyo Donuts stopped offering lunch and built up its delivery capacity. In the city of St. Paul, St. Dinette cut its workforce and reduced hours. Across the river in Minneapolis, Nicollet Mall's Zello closed its quick-service deli, Zelino's, and reopened the main restaurant for a few days each week.

The absence of Target's downtown workforce — and the once-a-quarter return of its employees from Zello to an office just down the mall — has been noticeable, said executive chef Jason Gibbons. Events like concerts, theater and conventions also boost business in the city, he said.

“There are people who come here every day. It's not a completely haunted town. But there are a lot of things to do here,” he said. “We're a big restaurant: we have to be busy otherwise it would be sad.”

Thanks to holiday events in downtown St. Paul, December was St. Dinette's best month in nearly six years, said owner/operator Tim Niver. But the comeback from COVID has been somewhat tougher, he said, because of new obstacles that have emerged since restaurants reopened, from inflation and rising labor costs to fewer people coming downtown.

Saint-Denet's sales are still down about a third from pre-COVID numbers, Niver said, “which is huge.” Meanwhile, sister restaurant Mucci Italian in the West Seventh neighborhood hasn't seen the same uptick, “and we're actually gaining a little bit,” he said.

“It's going to be sustainable, although we've never been a big margin-based business,” Nivar said. “So percentage points, one or two, matter a lot either way and can make a complete impact on someone's year.”

Kumamoto has faced similar challenges.

“We still feel that [we’re] Living right now, it's not like, 'Oh, this is normal.' We don't really think that way,” Hiroshi said. “We have to adjust to a new normal. We are struggling to adapt, because before the pandemic, we had big business here. That's a huge difference.”

In earlier times, JK Table had a “huge lunch rush hour,” Junko said, especially on Thursdays and Fridays. When COVID hit, they quickly adopted an online ordering system and shifted the restaurant's hours to include breakfast — including a traditional Japanese set — along with dinner. Catering has been a lifeline, providing revenue before, during and after the pandemic.

Before COVID, Yoyo Donuts did limited deliveries by courier, CEO Alice McGregor said. The bakery did curbside pickup at the height of the pandemic and implemented online ordering and DoorDash delivery last year.

It was no small feat, McGregor said. The donuts take 20 hours to make and are only sold fresh, so it took time to figure out how many donuts a day would meet demand.

“Now, it's like clockwork, but in the beginning, we'd either have a whole bunch of donuts at the end of the day or we'd run out at 9 o'clock,” she said. “I worked really hard on overproduction to make sure there was no way we'd run out of donuts, because everyone was worried what we were going to do.”

JK Table did almost all takeout business during the pandemic, but customers have started to return. More people working from home means less predictability, making it harder to plan ahead.

Still, Fridays are as busy as they used to be. John Culbertoff of Eden Prairie, an attorney whose firm has been in the office park since 2008, was there for lunch on a recent Friday when the restaurant opened.

JK Table is the third restaurant Culbert, 55, said he has seen at the location, and the longest-running restaurant so far. He eats there four times a week, he said, and ordered food during the pandemic.

“If they were open, I would be here,” he said.

Mary Hicks, 35, found out about JK Table during the pandemic when she started seeing a therapist nearby.

“I'll take therapy and come for sushi,” she said.

When she became pregnant, the West Bloomington resident continued ordering takeout, she said, because JK's are her favorite non-raw sushi rolls at the table. After the birth of her child, her friends brought her regular sushi as gifts.

As the afternoon progressed, dozens of tables began to fill up. Hiroshi cooked in the open kitchen and Junko took orders from behind the counter, wearing an apron that read “The Best Restaurant in Town.”

The Kumamotos chose the location partly because it was something they could afford, he said. Edina is also where their children, now grown, went to school. It may not be the easiest place to run a restaurant, but their loyal customers always know where to find them.

Junko Kumamoto said, “We are not leaving here.” “Our motherland is here.”

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