Fried chicken since 1870, upended by Covid-19

Mr Mark Martin (above) is the fourth generation to run Brookville Hotel in Abilene, Kansas, which closed permanently last month due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Mark Martin (above) is the fourth generation to run Brookville Hotel in Abilene, Kansas, which closed permanently last month due to the coronavirus pandemic.PHOTO: REUTERS

ABILENE (Kansas) • Mr Mark Martin's family restaurant weathered two world wars, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, serving up heaping plates of hand-battered fried chicken, mashed potatoes and creamed corn to a devoted clientele.

But it could not survive the coronavirus pandemic.

The restaurant closed permanently on Sept 25 after struggling to break even amid shutdowns caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.

"We're kind of in shock that this will be the end of it for us," said Mr Martin, the fourth generation to run the Brookville Hotel, a name that reflects its origins as a small hotel in nearby Brookville, Kansas, that his family acquired in 1894.

The virus has upended travel and spending habits for millions of Americans.

Small business failures in the first months of the pandemic were modest, however, as federal aid helped companies make payrolls as they waited for life to return to normal.

But the virus continues to spread, shattering records for new cases in the Midwest last week, while emergency federal aid is running out.

With cold weather and flu season nearing, which typically brings a drop in business for restaurants even in good years, Brookville's fate may be a harbinger of things to come.

Based on an analysis of credit card transactions by online marketing firm Womply, one in five small businesses in the United States open at the beginning of this year had permanently stopped operating as of mid-September - including 23 per cent of restaurants.

The Brookville Hotel closed permanently on Sept 25 after struggling to break even amid shutdowns caused by the Covid-19 outbreak. PHOTO: REUTERS

About 40 per cent of restaurants recently surveyed by the National Restaurants Association say they will be out of business in six months unless there is more financial relief from the government.

Mr Martin, 70, was hopeful in the first months of the pandemic. The restaurant secured a US$57,000 (S$77,500) loan through the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program - a vital lifeline, he said.

Three-quarters of that went to pay his several dozen employees, "which allowed us to free up those dollars to pay other expenses, like the mortgage and gas bill - all the stuff a restaurant needs", he said.

It reopened on Easter weekend for takeout only and hit its goals: Two hundred meals on Saturday and 400 on Easter itself.

Mother's Day was a hit, with 700 takeout meals.

It was eventually able to reopen the dining rooms, with limited seating. But business remained half the level of a year ago, Mr Martin said.

Summer is normally the busy season, thanks to a steady stream of visitors to the nearby Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. Often, Brookville would have two tour buses a week stop by for lunch or dinner.

But the museum remains closed and it had just two buses all summer.

Mr Mark Martin and Ms Kim Palenske take down a picture inside the Brookville Hotel in Kansas on Oct 10, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

Mr Martin cut costs everywhere, including switching to hauling the restaurant's garbage to the dump with his own trailer to shave the US$375 a month cost of pickup - but it was not enough.

By the time it closed in September, he estimates he had lost US$50,000 in total for the year, compared with the up to $50,000 annual profit he was used to.

He and his wife Connie rebuilt the restaurant in Abilene in 2000, painstakingly mirroring the old hotel's distinctive look, with a round-roof facade and the words "Since 1870" in large letters.

His mortgage stands at about US$700,000.

There was no fifth generation waiting to take over. The couple's only child, daughter Brandy Lea, died 25 years ago at age 17.

Mr Martin has no plans to retire, in part as he has poured most of his savings into the restaurant, and just applied for a courier job.

The shutdown has rippled through the Abilene community, whose population numbers 6,300.

Ms Kim Palenske, a hostess at the restaurant, knew they were struggling but was still startled when Mr Martin decided to close.

The restaurant was so well known, she said, so she was sure it would survive.

Customers are also reeling.

Ms Mary Stirtz and her husband, local retirees, would pick up dinner almost every warm Friday night and eat it at the nearby Eisenhower Park.

They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in the park two years ago with 35 dinners from Brookville for family and friends.

"We loved it," she said. "We just loved it."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2020, with the headline 'Fried chicken since 1870, upended by Covid-19'. Print Edition | Subscribe