EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part of an ongoing series featuring eateries that the Boilermaker faithful can visit before or after a Boilermaker home game. Do you have a favorite? Email Noah Padilla at [email protected]
LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The idea of opening a restaurant in a college town was a challenge that Chen Pan, owner of Kitami Yakiniku & Sushi, was excited to tackle.
Before moving to Lafayette, he had opened several successful Japanese restaurants in Nashville, Tennessee, and knew the difficulties of a new business.
When he first opened his doors, Pan saw great success. Students flocked to his restaurant to try the grill and sushi on weekends, and during the week the restaurant had a steady stream of customers, but nothing surprising.
“When we opened in March,” Pan said, “we didn’t have a menu. We didn’t have a liquor license. We did not advertise. We just put the ‘Open’ sign on and people came in. We were getting busier every day.”
He was sure it would be another successful business in the books, and that was true until it didn’t.
Not all the students who contributed to his success were seen in May; they went home for the summer.
Pan prepared for this and reduced his staff accordingly. What he didn’t plan for was the construction happening right outside his front door.
The city of Lafayette was installing a new storm drain on Main Street, and construction was scheduled to last throughout the summer. Many businesses along Main Street were forced to deal with construction for some time that summer, which significantly affected their business, but Pan saw his restaurant take the brunt of the hit.
The road next to his business became a parking lot for all the equipment needed for the project, and the front of his business was largely dug up to access the storm drain.
Pan’s restaurant turned from a full house on the weekend into an abandoned ghost town in a week.
“I’ve been in the restaurant business for 20 years since I was 18. I owned my first restaurant when I was 19 years old. I have never seen a restaurant fall apart so quickly. It usually happens gradually over time, but a drop like that is a leap from a mountain,” Pan said.
A ghost town
In the summer season of his business, Pan usually served several customers a day. He began to see the restaurant empty for hours on end.
One summer, Pan even considered closing the restaurant and laying off employees until the students returned in September, hoping the restaurant would survive.
But Pan and his staff decided to crouch down and hold on to the ship’s mast as the waves of summer finally began to recede.
The structure outside his restaurant disappeared one weekend, and customers began to trickle in, both out of curiosity and because they were no longer bothered by the wooden bridge that had stood outside his shop for months.
While things have been slow going, it’s been enough for Penn to get through the summer and see the dawn of Purdue’s 2022-2023 academic year.
As students flocked back to Purdue, they also flocked back to Pan’s Restaurant.
“It’s been really slow this summer,” Pan said. “I had fewer employees. I had to work harder. And I’m still worried, of course, because I had so many bills to pay, but when the students came back, it just kept picking up and picking up.
“Running a restaurant is now easier. And on the plus side, now the food is cheaper, so it’s good, it’s easier, I’m happy with that.”
Many students come to the restaurant primarily for the food in the restaurant. “They like to grill for their friends or try it for the first time,” Pan said.
It has become such an iconic aspect of Pan’s that there are evenings when every table in the restaurant has a grill in the center.
It became so popular that Pan began offering custom Kobe beef to customers. Kobe beef is a Wagyu beef known for its flavor, tenderness and fatty, well-marbled texture. Beef is considered a delicacy in Japan.
“People who don’t know about Kobe beef always say, ‘Why is it so expensive?’ But people who know what Kobe beef is always say, “Why is it so cheap?” I barely make any money from it, but I want my customers to have a better experience,” Pan said.
While the summer has been a tough time for Pan and his staff, the busy weekends are a guarantee that the community enjoys the food, and come next summer, they don’t predict it will be as difficult.
“We’re so busy every weekend now, it’s nice to see that.”
Noah Padilla is a reporter for the Journal & Courier. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at 1NoePadilla