The weather was unsettling as I drove to College Hill to pick up dinner at Kiki this past Sunday. Winds were blowing at what seemed like 40 miles per hour, and while the sky looked clear, there was a dark cloud over the horizon, which, of course, I will employ as a metaphor for how the entire restaurant industry was feeling.
Three days earlier, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced he might put the kibosh on indoor dining as the state’s COVID-19 numbers continued to skyrocket, leaving everyone in the restaurant business with a gut-punch feeling of anxiety and uncertainty.
Inside, Kiki owner Hideki Harada was feeling that uncertainty, too. Standing behind the front counter, he said he was already planning on how to go back to takeout only. He also told me he’d recently been forced to let his general manager go, which was why he was running back and forth between the kitchen and the front counter.
I took a look around the dining room, where about 15 or so customers were sitting at their socially distanced tables drinking beer and slurping ramen. (They are down to 30 seats, vs. their usual 65.) While Kiki’s carryout business is still going strong, Harada said the potential loss of indoor dining would be a heavy blow. Still, he said, “We’re going to get through this. And we aren’t going to give up without a fight.”
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Fighting was the last thing on Harada’s mind when he and his wife, Yuko, opened Kiki, an izakaya style Japanese pub, in College Hill in August 2019. “We were doing great,” he said. “We were getting notoriety, our reviews talked about how great the food and the service was.” And while the restaurant was still just a baby, Harada and Yuko were already thinking of expanding.
A lot of that buzz was due to Harada’s already great reputation as the executive chef at Kaze, which he opened in a 3CDC property in Over-the-Rhine after studying izakaya food in Japan. After leaving that restaurant in 2017 to focus on something smaller and more personal, he and Yuko started doing ramen pop ups at Northside Yacht Club before securing an old bank space in College Hill for Kiki.
Like most restaurants, Kiki has learned how to roll with the punches throughout the pandemic. Though they might’ve had a harder time than most. When the virus started, Harada said his business was hit unusually hard due to some unwarranted fears surrounding the virus.
“All the Asian-owned restaurants were starting to see the downfall early, before the shutdown,” he said. “Our sales were dipping. I don’t know if it was the Wuhan thing, but I can only assume so.”
I remember reading something Harada posted on a Facebook page for Cincinnati restaurant and bar workers regarding the situation. “Do we just tough it out?” he wrote. “I’m in a rough spot right now. We are a family owned restaurant with no investors with deep pockets.”
When DeWine officially banned indoor dining on Sunday, March 15, Harada and his staff took Monday and Tuesday off, and reopened as a carryout-only restaurant on Wednesday. Carryout was always something Kiki had tried to avoid. “We didn’t do it because we had oysters, and hand rolls – a lot of items that wouldn't reflect the quality we’re trying to represent if they were served as carryout items.”
To compensate, Harada took several of those items off the menu, eventually offering a hand-roll sushi kit customers could make at home. By April, they added an online ordering system, and while he swore he’d never do so, Harada tried to woo new customers with a “hamburger” of sorts, made with a beef/pork blend, fried egg, teriyaki sauce and cabbage and mayo, served on Sixteen Bricks bread. (While the burger is off the menu now, you can find all of Kiki’s specials on the restaurant’s Facebook page.)
Yes, there were layoffs. There had to be. “I let everyone go except our GM,” Harada said. “So it was just my wife and I cooking, and my GM taking orders over the phone.”
In June, they took an enclosed dining area that was feeling a bit too claustrophobic for diners and opened a market featuring popular Japanese convenience store items, including tamago sando, an egg sandwich made with Japanese mayonnaise and milk bread, as well as shrimp chips, sesame dressing, candy and Japanese beer.
“The market is intriguing,” Harada said. “If all goes well, it might be something we consider for another business.” If there was a silver lining in any of this, he said, it's the fact that it’s forced him to come up with new ideas and concepts. “Everyone in the restaurant industry has to be creative to try to create new forms of revenue,” he said.
Along with the various pivots he's had to make, Harada, like many restaurant owners, is counting on the goodwill of his customers to help him and Yuko along the way. “People seem interested in supporting local mom-and-pop shops like ours,” he said, especially in a close-knit community like College Hill.
“People want to support their communities,” he said. “Places like College Hill, and restaurants like ours or Tortilleria Garcia (located across the street from Kiki) are seeing more consistent business directly related to neighborhood customers.
After all, he continued, many Cincinnati neighborhoods see having a popular restaurant like Kiki as a badge of honor. “They don’t want to lose a restaurant in their own neighborhood, so they choose to eat here instead of going somewhere else.”
No matter what Gov. DeWine’s decisions are throughout the rest of the pandemic, Harada says Kiki will continue to persevere. Does he have his doubts? Of course he does. Every week, he and Yuko talk about the challenges they face in keeping the restaurant open (as well as how to best take care of their young daughter’s remote learning while doing so).
“This restaurant was our dream come true,” he said. “And we’ll never regret what we’ve done. But it’s exhausting. We are working so hard; we are working alone, and we are barely making ends meet. We’ll have one bad week and ask if it's worth it to keep doing this to ourselves. Then we’ll have a good week and remember why it is."
Kiki, 5932 Hamilton Ave, College Hill. Open Thursday-Sunday. Carryout: noon-8 p.m. Dine-in: 4-8 p.m. 513-541-0381, kikicincinnati.com.