After frying chicken for over 100 years, Kansas restaurant is shut by pandemic

By Timothy Aeppel and Arin Yoon
ABILENE, Kan. (Reuters) - Mark Martin's family restaurant survived two world wars, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, and served heaping plates of hand-whipped fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and creamed corn to a dedicated audience. But it couldn't survive the pandemic.
The freeway restaurant in Abilene, Kansas closed permanently on September 25 after struggling to break even due to the shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.
"We're a bit shocked that this will be the end for us," said Martin, who is the fourth generation to run the Brookville Hotel. This name reflects its origins as a small hotel in nearby Brookville, Kansas that his family acquired in 1894.
The virus has changed the travel and spending habits of millions of Americans. However, the failure of small businesses in the first few months of the pandemic was modest as government aid helped businesses prepare payrolls while they waited for life to return to normal.
But the virus continues to spread and shakes the records https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa/covid-19-surges-in-us-midwest-broadway-dark-until-june- idUSKBN26U1OZ for new cases in the Midwest last week as federal emergency aid runs out. With cold weather and flu season approaching, which usually results in a decline in restaurant business even in good years, the fate of Brookville could be a harbinger of things to come.
Based on an analysis of credit card transactions by online marketing company Womply, one in five small businesses opened in the US in early 2020 had ceased operations by mid-September - including 23% of restaurants. About 40% of the restaurants recently surveyed by the National Restaurants Association https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/100-000-restaurants-closed-six-months-into-pandemic-301130280.html say they will be out of business in six months unless there is more financial relief from the government.
Martin, 70, said he was hopeful in the first few months of the pandemic. The restaurant secured a $ 57,000 loan through the federal government's paycheck protection program - a vital lifeline, he said. Three-quarters of that went to his several dozen employees, "which enabled us to free those dollars to pay for other expenses like mortgage and gas bills - everything a restaurant needs," he said.
They reopened the take-away Easter weekend and achieved their goals: 200 meals on Saturday and 400 on Easter. Mother's Day was a hit with 700 take-away meals. They were finally able to reopen the dining rooms with limited seating.
However, the business stayed half what it was a year ago, Martin said. Summer is usually the busy season, thanks to a steady stream of visitors to the nearby Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. Often times, Brookville had two tour buses a week dropping by for lunch or dinner. But the museum remains closed and they only had two buses all summer.
Martin cut costs everywhere, including moving his own trailer to the garbage dump of the restaurant to cut the monthly pickup cost of $ 375 - but it wasn't enough to make a profit.
By the time it closed in September, it had lost an estimated $ 50,000 for the year, compared to its usual annual profit of up to $ 50,000.

SHUTDOWN RIPPLES THROUGH THE COMMUNITY
Martin and his wife Connie rebuilt the restaurant in Abilene in 2000 and meticulously reflected the unmistakable appearance of the old hotel with a round roof facade and the words "Since 1870" in large letters. His mortgage, which helped finance the renovation, is approximately $ 700,000.
There wasn't a fifth generation waiting to take power. The couple's only child, daughter Brandy Lea, died 25 years ago at the age of 17.
Martin has heard from his bank that there may be interest from someone to reopen the restaurant, but he believes it is unlikely until the pandemic subsides. He said he had no plans to retire, partly because he put most of his savings in the restaurant and only applied for a job as a courier.
One of the personal items he took with him was the Brookville framed bronze medallion, which was awarded the 2007 America's Classics Prize by the James Beard Foundation.
The shutdown affected the Abilene community with 6,300 residents. Kim Palenske, who was at the restaurant for eight years, said she knew they were in trouble but was still shocked when Martin decided to close.
The restaurant was so well known, Palenske said, that she was sure it would survive. "We had people from Australia," she said, "and there were people who would spend a day driving from Wichita to have lunch on a Sunday."
Palenske, who also works part-time at the local school, said she will need something new to make up for lost income. "I haven't started looking yet," she said. "I'm still shocked."
Customers also fluctuate. Mary Stirtz and her husband, local retirees, would pick up dinner almost every warm Friday night and eat it at nearby Eisenhower Park while watching the swimmers in the outdoor pool. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in the park two years ago with 35 Brookville dinners for extended families and friends that attended.
"We loved it," she said. "We just loved it."

(Reporting by Timothy Aeppel in New York and Arin Yoon in Abilene; editing by Heather Timmons and Rosalba O'Brien)

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