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In Their Struggle To Survive The Coronavirus Pandemic, Kansas City Restaurateurs Are Rethinking The Business Of Serving Food

Oliver Hughes
Amy Marcus rolls out pie crust for her new venture, Sweet Tea Pie Co.

Amy Marcus was furloughed from her job at the outset of the pandemic in March. She’d worked at Sura Eats in Parlor for a couple of years, both helping in the kitchen and running social media.

As a professional photographer and cooking enthusiast, the job fit Marcus well. But with three children ages 12, 10, and six, she knew she had to work.

“I just couldn’t sit. I didn’t know that unemployment was going to happen, I didn’t know that extra unemployment was going to happen," she says. "In March, it was just like: you have three kids to support, you’ve got to figure something out.”

So she baked a pie with her boyfriend. They gave it to a friend who shared it with more friends. She baked some more pies and gave them to more friends. In very little time, Marcus saw that she’d stumbled on a business venture.

All through the pandemic, people have willingly and unwillingly reexamined the activities that make up their lives. For many area restaurant owners and workers, this reexamination and a determination to work has led to sometimes unexpected places.

Within a week of starting an Instagram page for Sweet Tea Pie Co., KCUR food critic Jenny Vergara contacted Marcus for a story in Feast Magazine.

“Now,” Marcus says, “I bake pies for a living.”

Koji Sakata
Koji Sakata was the head sushi chef at Nara until it closed in June. Now he owns Kabuki Sushi in Brookside.

Koji Sakata didn’t change directions quite as dramatically as Marcus did when Nara closed. He’d worked at the sushi restaurant since 2006, and had been the head sushi chef for years.

Instead, he took an opportunity that a former boss had presented in 2019: Sakata could take over Kabuki.

Kabuki Japanese Restaurant had operated in Crown Center for years; Sakata had worked there in the 1980s. Still, he’d hesitated at first. When the owner passed away in December, the owner’s partner reached out and said Sakata could take over.

“I always wanted to have my own, and that’s when I took the chance,” Sakata says. The restaurant didn’t have any interruption in service, but Sakata did rename it Kabuki Sushi and move it to Brookside.

He did his best to take his Nara team with him, since they’d all lost their jobs as well. He revamped the menu to make it more similar to what he’d been making at Nara, and with the lower overheard of the smaller facility, he says he’s doing pretty well.

Sakata thinks that when he looks back on 2020, this change, though difficult at the time, will prove to be a really good thing.

Rachel Rinas is still working through the loss of her restaurant Karbón, which she ran out of Parlor. But she’s in a good place, too.

Chef Michael Foust, owner of Black Sheep, had gotten involved in his new project, the Chef Collective, and a contract with Powell Gardens, and contacted her for help. She’s been acting as chef de cuisine for a few months, and runs a pop up from the Black Sheep location every other Sunday—Rinas says the pop up helps her stay connected to her former Karbón patrons.

Erin Hassett
Chef Rachel Rinas owned and operated Karbon in Parlor until it closed in April. Now she works with Chef Michael Foust at Black Sheep.

But Rinas has also used the pandemic to think about more than cooking or moving onto the next step in her profession. She’s been reexamining everything she’s known about the food industry.

“I’m positive and hopeful, and I know that restaurants and the food culture, especially here in Kansas City, are a really integral part of our community.”

What, she wonders, would be the best way forward once the pandemic is over?

She’s asking big questions about how she’ll treat employees in the future when she strikes out on her own again. She wants to know how she’ll manage to offer health insurance, benefits, and even job descriptions—all things that hospitality industry workers typically go without.

None of this thinking was new to her, exactly, it’s just that, she says, “I’ve been so busy for the past several years, and it’s easy to get wrapped up in your day to day schedule and put those big things on the outside. When there’s nothing to do and your stuck on the inside, it’s like, maybe I should think about these things really seriously.”

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.
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