Takeout boxes, streeeteries, Grubhub, Uber Eats, home–cooked meals, grocery store delivery—all of us have had to adapt and innovate food habits in the wake of the COVID–19 pandemic, and restaurants have certainly been no exception. From adapting their business models to focus on takeout, to changing their hours to deal with staffing shortages, to constructing outdoor huts to accommodate more outdoor dining, to even closing their businesses for good, adaptation has been the name of the game for restaurants in the COVID–19 era. But even as restaurants are going back to “normal,” owners are still being affected by the altered realities of the industry—and shifting their business models accordingly.
After months of barely getting by, many restaurants chose to permanently close their doors. This was the case for Poi Dog in Rittenhouse, a local favorite spot serving up traditional Hawaiian poke bowls, now moving to an online business rather than its former fast–casual storefront. Others, like Stock in Fishtown and Rittenhouse and Day by Day in Center City, experienced the lasting effects of the pandemic and chose to shut down just over two years after COVID–19 began. Conversely, Koreana Food survived the pandemic thanks to its heaps of loyal student diners, yet is now forced to close for unrelated reasons: limited space in University City and big development companies buying up properties for administrative purposes.
James Garrow, communications director at the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said in an interview with WHYY that “there has been a rise in incubators and more mobile food establishments. Anecdotally, we feel this could be due to the influx of pandemic relief funding.” Garrow’s comments reflect the changes the restaurant industry has undergone in recent years. It's not the pandemic that caused these restaurants to close, but rather the ripple effect it had on all aspects of the industry—from property values to food supply costs to customer experience.
Kiki Aranita, owner of Poi Dog, has a soft voice, but behind it lies major hustle. She jumps right into the story of how she got started in the food business. In 2011, she was at Bryn Mawr College getting her Ph.D. and growing “pretty exasperated with studying classics.” She knew going in that it would be a challenge to get a tenured job, a fact that became clearer after about five years.
As she became more and more disillusioned with academia, she also became increasingly aware of the “burgeoning food truck scene” in Philly. She cites Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race and the movie Chef circa 2014 as catalysts that fostered excitement and brought alternative restaurant models into the spotlight in the 2010s, when Aranita says it was “prime time” to open a food truck.
In 2011, Aranita and her business partner Chris Vacca left grad school and bought a truck from the owner of the restaurant she worked in at the time, taking over the commissary and parking space as well. Aranita, “half from Hawaii” herself, decided to sell Hawaiian food, making the truck stand out and grow in popularity quite quickly. After running the food truck for four–and–a–half years, they opened a fast–casual brick and mortar restaurant in 2017.
Running a restaurant is a huge operation. With the high rent of a hot location in Rittenhouse and 20–person staff, it had to be incredibly busy just to break even. Poi Dog had two LLCs—the restaurant fell under one, and the food truck and catering businesses fell under the other. “The restaurant LLC essentially didn't make any money,” Aranita explains. “It broke even. The food truck and the catering side brought in quite a significant amount of money, and these two businesses balanced each other out.” Aranita adds that Penn was Poi Dog’s biggest catering customer.
When the pandemic struck in March 2020, the lunch crowd that Poi Dog depended on to stay operational suddenly disappeared. Takeout and delivery weren’t fallback options because there wasn’t a cap on delivery fees for apps such as GrubHub and Caviar. The costs associated with operating on these apps became unsustainable. “Imagine selling a $10 plate—Caviar takes 25 percent of that, or $2.50,” says Aranita. “The food costs could be between 30 percent and 40 percent, and then the labor cost is 30 percent. That essentially makes that $10 plate of food a loss for the business.” The cheap prices that were once a draw for their customer base were now what was sinking the business; relying on third–party takeout stripped Poi Dog of profits.
Poi Dog closed temporarily, as most businesses did, at the end of March 2020. A few months later, it began to do online order pickups once a week. In July, it finally decided that it didn’t make financial sense to stay open, and it announced its final day of service at the end of the month. “We had a lot of support, like, lines around the block for our last services,” Aranita says. She also invited her “employees with their own little food businesses at that point [to sell their food], which brought a lot of money into their pockets.”
As the old adage goes, when one door closes, another one opens. Aranita saw the devastating closing of Poi Dog as an opportunity for new growth. She went above and beyond to make sure her employees and other local businesses could benefit from Poi Dog’s closure. Then–employee Chance Anies, current owner of Tabachoy Filipino food truck, sold lechon—a slow–roasted suckling pig dish. He’ll soon be opening a Tabachoy location on Passyunk Square. Alejandro Gonzalez, a former line cook, was starting a business selling tamales, so he made and sold them on Poi Dog’s last day as well. Another employee, Jamaar Julal, was starting his kombucha brand JamBrü, and this was the first time that he sold his kombucha to the public. He’s now the head of fermentation for Honeysuckle Projects in West Philly.
In addition to selling her employees’ food, Aranita also donated all of the equipment either to staff who were starting their own businesses or to primarily minority–owned places in the city that were in the process of opening. She calls the experience a “really, really rewarding” one.
Still, closing her restaurant was emotional. “It was entirely gut–wrenching,” she says. “But sometimes you just have to know when to let go.”
But that wasn’t the end for Poi Dog. When you open its website, you’re greeted with a single message: “We make sauces now.” Aranita says this wasn’t initially part of the plan when closing, but rather “the idea was planted in [her] brain in September” by her friends who own Burlap & Barrel, a company that sells equitably sourced spices. “They tasted something that I made and they were like, ‘Hey, put this into bottles.’ And I was like, ‘That’s never occurred to me, but tell me more.’”
Another close friend of hers is one of the founders of Gotham Grove, an importing company that sells sauce online. Both companies originally set out to sell to chefs, but they both changed their business to be more accessible to the home cook as restaurants began to close. They saw exponential growth in their direct–to–consumer sales online during the pandemic, and talked Aranita through what she would do in order to bring her sauces to market.
She also credits the food scientists at Drexel Food Lab and the Drexel Hospitality Management and Culinary Arts Department, as well as those at Rutgers Food Innovation Center, for helping her test the products’ shelf stability. After that, Aranita says she reached out “over email, and found co–manufacturers and worked with them to further develop my formulas, adding guava katsu [sauce] to the line.”
Aranita now focuses on the guava katsu and chili peppah water sauces, specifically because they’re vegan. “One of my personal missions is to make the flavors of Hawaii and the history of its immigration more accessible to people of different diets,” she says. Most katsu sauces, including the one they sold at Poi Dog, aren’t vegan. She was determined to replicate the flavors with plant–based ingredients.
“The trick,” as she puts it, “was to substitute fish sauce and chicken stock with a blend of white miso and mushroom powder. And it’s exactly the same, it tastes meaty and umami–rich. I'm really proud of that.” You can hear the passion in her voice. Food science is fascinating, and she’s a total genius.
In February 2021, the sale of Poi Dog sauces became more streamlined. Aranita has learned a lot from business in the last year. “I try not to bite off more than I can chew. I don't push too hard in terms of marketing because I'm trying to grow the infrastructure and methods of shipping and expansion at a rate that I can handle,” she says.
She recently signed up with a soon–to–be–announced Lancaster–based distributor, and she’s “very behind their ethics and what they do, how they support small farmers.” When it comes to sales, Aranita says, “I don't care if I ever get into Whole Foods or not, but I want the sauces to be on the shelves of specialty grocers that feel like neighborhood gems.”
As for the future of Poi Dog, Aranita hopes to come up with two new vegan products this year. Though closing the storefront in the face of the pandemic was devastating, the sauce business brings Aranita to a new stage of her career as the restaurant industry rediscovers its footing on the other side of the pandemic. It’s easy to get lost in the sauce when a pandemic takes away your business, but Aranita and Poi Dog are taking it in stride. When life gives you guavas, sell guava katsu.
This past December, Time Magazine reported that “roughly 80,000 restaurants have temporarily or permanently closed since the start of the pandemic, according to estimates from the National Restaurant Association, down from 110,000 at the peak of the pandemic.” Many restaurant owners took to social media to announce closures or temporary closures that eventually became permanent as the pandemic stretched on.
Day by Day, a classic brunch spot that had been around for 41 years, closed permanently right around the start of 2022. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, owner Robin Barg shut down the restaurant in November 2020 instead of seating at 25% indoor capacity. With some help, she resumed service with outdoor seating and catering in April 2021, and things looked good during the summer. She looked for new employees to replace her “aging workforce,” but “she realized that most were not vaccinated against COVID–19. … She had no idea of what she would do.” To recoup some of her losses, Barg sold the equipment at the beginning of January to anyone interested.
Stock, a popular Southeast Asian restaurant by Chef Tyler Akin, recently closed both locations—Fishtown after eight years and Rittenhouse after four—posting on Instagram, “While feeding our community has been an honor over the years, we came to realize that the restaurants were not built to weather a 2+ year pandemic for a lot of reasons.” Continuing, they wrote that they “didn’t feel comfortable with indoor dining in [their] tight spaces and delivery alone wasn’t a sustainable business model.”
Restaurant closures have hit University City, too. Beijing, a longstanding student favorite that had been around for 32 years, shut its storefront in September 2020. The most recent casualty is Koreana, a cozy campus–adjacent gem which, despite weathering the pandemic, is now closing its doors as its building transitions to new ownership.
There’s a cruel sense of irony in that. In fact, they’ve been doing so well lately that even on a random Wednesday evening, the restaurant is jam–packed with students. “We were so backed up, because I got … to the restaurant kind of late, like 6:30,” owner Mike Choi explains. “We had so many things all over the place.”
This routine is not unusual for Choi—Koreana is not his day job. He's been a full–time engineer for the last 20 years. He works Monday through Friday and comes to Koreana after work and on weekends. His wife, Emma, was a nurse, but quit to run the restaurant full time.
Choi started selling pizza and hoagies in Abington in 2003. Two years in, the work was pretty stressful, so he sold that business in 2005. He went back to his old job in engineering, where his former employer rehired him. “Thank god for that,” he says with a chuckle. But in 2007, he discovered a small restaurant at 3801 Chestnut Street that sold Korean dishes and pizza. He ended up taking it and converted it to strictly sell Korean dishes. Thus, in May of 2007, Koreana Food as it’s known so fondly today in the University City community was born.
In 2017, Choi found a second location in Rittenhouse, built it from ground up, and ran it for two years before selling it in 2019 because it was too much for him and his wife to manage alone. This was just before the onset of COVID–19, which was accidentally great timing on their part.
Even without the second location, the pandemic seriously hurt Koreana. “The last two years we didn't do that well because our business is based on our students, and when the students weren’t here, we lost a lot [of business],” he tells me. When some students came back to live off campus in Philly in September 2020, things started to pick up a bit. He says he was happy to see the takeout and delivery rates increasing, even though they didn’t have indoor dining at the time. It was a small profit, but it was enough.
This past January and February, though, business stalled. “I couldn't figure out why,” Choi says. “But when I talked to some other business people, they were going through exactly the same. I couldn't believe how bad it was.” He’s still not sure what caused the lull—he speculated it could have something to do with new vaccination requirements for restaurants, or the Omicron variant—but thankfully, things picked back up at the beginning of March, and Koreana is lively once again.
If they’re doing so well, why do they have to close? Choi explains that for the last seven years, they could only get a year–to–year lease instead of a long–term one. “It was really hard on us. Normally, when the lease is over, they will give you either a five– or ten–year lease, but they couldn’t renew long–term, because they knew they were selling that property,” he says.
Mike and Emma Choi found out in December that their lease would not be renewed. A developer purchased the property to build a “modern, high–tech office with a laboratory,” he says.
For Koreana to close after so many years of hard work is hard on Choi. It’s a sad thing for him and his wife to go through, because “[they] put a lot of effort into this restaurant.” He reflects on the progress over the years with pride for what they built. “When I first started, there was no business. And we built our restaurant like you wouldn’t imagine. Before COVID, we were doing so well,” he says. They had nine part–time students working for them and four full–time employees as well. Now, their staff has shrunk to a one–, sometimes two–person kitchen.
Choi will especially miss the location in University City. It’s an ideal spot right near Penn's and Drexel’s campuses, as well as several office spaces. But still, he’s happy with how good business has been for the last month, and he knows it’ll continue to be busy until they close their doors on April 17.
Looking forward, the Chois are currently on the hunt for a new location. They have some help with the search and some money saved up, and will “see what happens during the summer.” If they find something they like, they hope to reopen Koreana this fall in time for students’ return to campus.
Above all, Choi is endlessly grateful for his customers. He loves to meet students from all over the world, and has even met some lifetime, loyal supporters. He mentions specifically one woman who started coming to Koreana as a first year, continued throughout her undergraduate and medical school at Penn, and is now a doctor at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
When asked if there’s anything else he’d like to add, Choi only has one thing to say: “I’d like to thank everyone for the last 15 years. … Our customers are the greatest.”
The food industry is a dynamic one, but the pandemic exacerbated the rate at which change occurs. Many restaurant owners couldn’t, and continue to struggle to keep up with the ever–shifting demands of landlords, diners, and safety protocols. Even when restaurants are forced to close their doors, it doesn’t mean the end—sometimes, a new door will open. In defining the new normal in this post–COVID era, adaptation is a must.
From buying Kiki Aranita’s Poi Dog sauces to visiting new local food projects like Tabachoy and JamBrü to going and chatting with Mike Choi in the last few days his dear Koreana is open, there are always innovative ways to support the passionate people behind the Philly restaurant industry.