Kiki was supposed to be a restaurant in the izakaya style. The way Chef Hideki Harada describes it, people in Japan sit around a bar, have a conversation with friends over drinks, and the food arrives as it’s ready. It’s mostly small plates, freshly and quickly prepared in the kitchen, and you all dig in together.
A year into the pandemic, this sounds like a fantastical paradise. Did we once gather together over drinks? Huddle together to chat with our faces uncovered? Did we actually share food?
When the pandemic hit, a lot of things about Kiki had to change, and quickly. When Harada and his wife, Yuko, opened the College Hill restaurant in August 2019, they didn’t even offer carryout. After the shutdown, the menu had to be revamped, as did much of their way of doing business. Things like fresh oysters and sushi-grade fish—perishable, expensive, and sensitive to fluctuations in demand—dropped off of the menu. Most of the staff had to be let go.
Then, they began to adapt. “You have to be creative at this time,” Harada says. He sees this kind of creativity in restaurants all around the region, whether making meal kits or selling take-home Christmas dinners. You either learn some new tricks, basically, or you don’t get through this thing.
Much of the menu, from ramen to gyoza, could survive the transition, but Harada knew Kiki would have to find ways to appeal to the growing take-out mindset. One new item became a do-it-yourself sushi kit. (Harada, who studied in Japan under masters of the art, luckily doesn’t have to see the wonky handrolls I produce at home.) New items pop on the menu depending on the seasons, like yakiimo, a roasted sweet potato dish with miso butter that exemplifies Kiki’s homey directness.
When the restaurant reopened for in-person dining in May, one of their rooms started to feel too confined for the pandemic, so Harada decided to construct a little Japanese market in its place. From imported packaged chips, candy, and beer to his own house-made sandwiches, plus artisanal soy and miso offerings from local outfits like CinSoy, the market has provided another avenue for reaching customers.
None of it is a simple endeavor, from the endless chopping and packing for the sushi kits, which have 10 separate elements, to tracking a whole new area of inventory. And Harada admits—with a young daughter to keep occupied and on her school video calls, and with he and Yuko bearing almost all of the load—the work can be exhausting. Still, he says it’s been a wondrous journey to owning this restaurant, from working and learning in Japan and Europe and serving as executive chef at Kaze in Over-the-Rhine to innumerable pop-up ramen nights at the Northside Yacht Club. “You don’t give up on something like this without a fight.”
There’s another intangible element that’s kept Kiki going: joy. Whenever we go pick up food there, we always find little extras, like an origami kit tucked into the bag or silly Japanese candy shaped like a hamburger. It’s a dark time, Harada admits, and everyone needs to do their part to keep some light shining for those around them. He credits the city and organizations like the College Hill Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation not just for the obvious and much-appreciated financial help—including rent abatement and financial aid programs—but for little things like putting up a Christmas tree in the park across from Kiki or setting up a mobile library with wrapped gifts for children outside his door. All of these touches, he says, help keep a sense of hope alive.
Little by little, the restaurant Harada dreamed about is coming back, even as the pandemic drags on. He’s introduced sushi nights and is rehiring kitchen and service staff. There is a safe shore on the other side of this challenging time, and it’s just possible to make it out now.
The crisis has certainly changed him and Yuko. Problems that once seemed like a big deal—a staff shortage or some equipment problem in the back of the house—are now seen in a different perspective. “If you can survive this,” Harada says, laughing, “all those little things become like nothing.”