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New and old local restaurants are casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic

Business & Money

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Golden Corral pic courtesy Google maps

IDAHO FALLS – Losing everything and starting over seems to be a recurring theme for Jacob and Senessa Tiffany of Idaho Falls.

They opened Kiwi Loco at 3198 South 25th East in March after a year-long remodel project. Everything was going great for several weeks until the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting eastern Idaho.

The Tiffanys did everything they could to stay afloat, but lack of customers and drastic price increases for supplies made it difficult to stay open.

“We were paying $30 for a box of gloves. Then all this hit and we were paying $150,” Senessa says. “It turned into a nightmare.”

The new business ultimately became a casualty of the outbreak and closed for the last time on Aug. 31 after five months of business.

We spoke to Senessa as they were opening in March. She told us about the wildfire that had destroyed their home in Paradise, California in November 2018. Idaho Falls became a place for them to start a new life together.

RELATED | Couple who lost home in fire now own thriving business

Senessa was ecstatic the last time we spoke with her, but now they’re going to be starting from scratch all over again and our conversation this time around has a much different tone.

“It’s tragic what (the pandemic) has done to small businesses,” Senessa says. “A lot of people are suffering. How can you survive when prices are getting jacked up five times the original amount?”

And it’s not just new restaurants with fledgling customer bases. More than a few longtime restaurants are seeing major declines as well due to COVID-19.

It’s not just new business

Golden Corral in Pocatello is one of those longtime restaurants. It closed its doors for the last time Sept. 13 after 19 years of business.

At the onset of the virus, owner-operator Pam Casey says they set up a kiosk that provided gloves for customers to wear while they dished up their food. Some people were OK with that, while others were not, Casey says, but once Idaho State University closed down, business was never the same.

“On March 16, everything went away. We went from doing a pretty substantial volume to doing $10,000 a week. That doesn’t cut it in an 8,500-square-foot restaurant with a heavy-duty bank payment,” Pam’s husband, Jeff, says. “After trying to stay open for a while, we decided just a few weeks ago we couldn’t do it anymore.”

The restaurant had many loyal customers, some of whom had been eating there since the beginning. Despite the long history of financial success, Jeff says the pandemic was a severe blow.

“People don’t like buffet restaurants when a virus is going around, and even with the precautions we took … people still weren’t interested in coming in,” he says.

The financial loss didn’t just impact the Caseys. One of the most difficult aspects of the closure has been laying off employees, Jeff says, many of which have significantly contributed to the business’s success over the years.

The working relationship with his employees is what he’s going to miss most of all.

What’s next

Despite everything that’s happened, Senessa Tiffany says it still could have been much worse. They’ve almost sold all the Kiwi Loco equipment and will likely break even.

She says the silver lining through all of this is the increased time with her kids and the support of the community. She has no plans to leave eastern Idaho and says she’d rather go through a tragedy here than anywhere else.

“We love it here. We have a great group of friends and a great … community,” Senessa says.

Senessa started doing eyelash extensions out of her home for friends and neighbors once her business closed. The response has been great, she says, and she’s hoping to build up a bigger clientele. Her new goal is to go to esthetician school and be a “one-stop-shop” for skincare.

The situation isn’t as tragic for the Caseys. They own a Golden Corral in Twin Falls, which will remain open. They also own some other businesses in the Boise area, including Café Olé.

Chip Schwarze, President of the Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce, says COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way people do business. Many business owners have been forced to adapt and drastically change their business model to stay open.

While COVID-19 has negatively impacted some restaurants, Schwarze says it’s been a “banner year” for others.

“I loved watching Pachangas here in downtown Idaho Falls,” Schwarze says. “When everybody was shut down, they were preparing packages where people could go home and cook their own Mexican (food). It fundamentally changed the way they did business because they adapted to a bad situation, and we’re seeing businesses do that across the board.”

The impact of COVID-19 on the local economy will be long-lasting, he says, but in the long run, he believes the local economy will recover and eventually struggling businesses will thrive again.

“I think our economy in eastern Idaho is going to continue with its rebound and we’re going to see it blossom over the next six to eight months … and come back stronger and better than ever,” Schwarze says.