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Those who don't already know about JK's Table are unlikely to find it.

During a decade tucked away in a winding Edina office park a couple turns off Highway 100 and I-494, the family-owned Japanese restaurant has relied on word-of-mouth to draw customers for sushi, rice bowls, soups and sandwiches. For years, the location — on the ground floor of a mid-sized beige office tower identical to those around it — made it a hotspot for workers in nearby offices who'd pack in for weekday breakfast and lunch.

As with every restaurant, though, the COVID-19 pandemic complicated an already tough business. JK's Table survived thanks to loyal customers who ordered takeout and bought gift cards, owners Hiroshi and Junko Kumamoto said, as well as city support through the federal CARES and American Rescue Plan acts. But in this new work-from-home world, the business model has had to evolve for good: A common tale for restaurants geared toward providing breakfast, lunch or happy hour to the office crowd.

"After COVID," Hiroshi began as the couple prepared to open on a recent Wednesday morning, Junko jumping in to finish the sentence: "Everything changed."

Evolution has been key to the survival of Twin Cities restaurants that rely on workplace traffic, from strip malls to skyways. In Minnetonka, YoYo Donuts stopped offering lunch and built up its delivery capacity. In downtown St. Paul, Saint Dinette cut its workforce and shortened hours. Across the river in Minneapolis, Nicollet Mall's Zelo shuttered its quick-service deli, Zelino, and re-opened the main restaurant fewer days each week.

Junko Kumamoto took orders during the lunch rush at JK's Table, a Japanese restaurant she owns with her husband, Hiroshi, on Friday in Edina.
Junko Kumamoto took orders during the lunch rush at JK's Table, a Japanese restaurant she owns with her husband, Hiroshi, on Friday in Edina.

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

The absence of Target's downtown workforce — and its employees' once-a-quarter return to the office just down the Mall from Zelo — has been noticeable, said executive chef Jason Gibbons. Downtown events such as music, theater and conventions also drive business, he said.

"There are people that are here every day. It's not a complete ghost town. But there's only so much to go around," he said. "We're a big restaurant: We need to be busy or it's kind of sad."

December was Saint Dinette's best month in about six years, said owner/operator Tim Niver, thanks to holiday events in downtown St. Paul. But bouncing back from COVID has been hard in part because of new hurdles that emerged as restaurants were re-opening, he said, from inflation and rising labor costs to fewer people visiting downtown.

Saint Dinette's sales are still down about a third from pre-COVID numbers, "which is huge," Niver said. Meanwhile, sister restaurant Mucci's Italian in the West Seventh neighborhood hasn't seen the same fluctuation, "and we're actually gaining a little bit," he said.

"It is going to be sustainable, though we've never been a business built on big margins," Niver said. "So percentage points, one or two, mean a big deal either way and could have all the effect on somebody's year."

The Kumamotos have faced similar challenges.

"We still feel like [we're] surviving right now, not like, 'Oh, it's normal.' We don't really think that way," Hiroshi said. "We have to adjust to a new normal. We are kind of struggling to adapt, because before the pandemic, we had big business here. It's a huge difference."

In the Before Times, JK's Table drew a "super huge lunch rush hour," especially on Thursdays and Fridays, Junko said. When COVID hit, they quickly adopted an online ordering system and shifted the restaurant's hours to replace breakfast ― including a traditional Japanese set — with dinner to-go. Catering has been a lifeline, providing revenue before, during and after the pandemic.

JK's Table, a Japanese restaurant owned by Junko and Hiroshi Kumamoto, seen Friday in Edina.
JK's Table, a Japanese restaurant owned by Junko and Hiroshi Kumamoto, seen Friday in Edina.

Anthony Souffle, Star Tribune

Before COVID, YoYo Donuts did limited delivery by courier, said CEO Alise McGregor. The bakery did curbside pickup at the height of the pandemic and implemented online ordering and DoorDash deliveries last year.

It was no small feat, McGregor said. Doughnuts take 20 hours to make and are only sold fresh, so it took time to figure out how many would satisfy demand on a given day.

"Now, it's like clockwork, but starting out, we'd either have a whole bunch of donuts at the end of the day or we ran out at 9 o'clock," she said. "I worked really hard on over-producing just to be sure there's no way we were going to run out of donuts, because everyone was worried we were going to."

JK's Table did nearly all takeout business during the pandemic, but customers have begun to return. More people working from home has meant less predictability, making it hard to plan ahead.

Still, Fridays tend to be busy, as they were before. John Culbertof Eden Prairie, an attorney whose firm has been in the office park since 2008, was there for lunch right when the restaurant opened on a recent Friday.

JK's Table is the third restaurant Culbert, 55, said he's seen in this location, and by far the longest lasting. He eats there up to four times a week, he said, and ordered food throughout the pandemic.

"If they were open, I was here," he said.

Marie Hicks, 35, discovered JK's Table during the pandemic, when she started seeing a therapist nearby.

"I would get therapy and come for sushi," she said.

When she got pregnant, the West Bloomington resident continued to order takeout, she said, because JK's Table has her favorite non-raw sushi rolls. After she had her baby, her friends brought her regular sushi as a treat.

As noon approached, the dozen or so tables began to fill. Hiroshi cooked in the open kitchen as Junko took orders from behind the counter, wearing an apron that read "Best restaurant in town."

The Kumamotos chose the location in part because it's what they could afford, they said. Edina is also where their children, now grown, attended school. It might not be the easiest spot to run a restaurant, but their loyal customers always know where to find them.

"We are not moving from here," Junko Kumamoto said. "Our homeland is here."