Kodiak’s KFC Taco Bell will be closing its doors permanently today at 11 p.m. For owner Debbie Rohrer, the thought of driving down Mill Bay Road without seeing the restaurant lights and cars in the parking lot is devastating.
Sitting at a corner table and surveying the restaurant, Rohrer’s eyes welled with tears. She knows many customers by name. The 18 employees — most part-time — fondly refer to her as “Boss.” For them, this is a second family.
“What people don’t quite understand is that for my brother and I, this is like losing somebody. You don’t just get over it. When I lock the doors, it’s going to be hard,” Rohrer said, her voice shaking.
The KFC Taco Bell was opened by Dan Rohrer, Debbie’s brother, in 2008. It was met with a warm welcome. Opening day sales broke Yum! Brands records, paving the way for remote location franchises in the western region of the U.S.
Around six years ago, Dan sold the business to Debbie.
“I don’t think he or I have a specific day of when that actually happened,” she said. By that point, she had been involved in running and operating the business for a number of years.
Rohrer has been tight-lipped about the reason for the sudden closure, citing “potential future legal action.”
“It all happened really fast — within about two weeks,” she said. “I’m not going to lie to people about it, but I can’t be open about the whole situation.”
Rohrer said that interaction with Taco Bell, KFC and Yum! Brands executives has been limited since the franchise opened.
“With us being pretty isolated, we haven’t seen many people who have come here,” she said, adding that she doesn’t think Kodiak’s isolation is related to the decision to close. “Nobody has been here to see what it’s like.”
Yum! Brands, owner of the KFC and Taco Bell brands, did not return a request for comment.
While Rohrer says she’ll miss the Beefy 5-Layer Burrito (“it’s quick and it’s easy and most of the time I’m going from place to place”) and the Mashed-Potato Bowl, she will miss the sense of community more than anything.
Through the 12 years of operations, KFC Taco Bell was committed to donating to community events and teams, becoming a pillar of the Kodiak community. Rohrer has donated food to charity auctions and Senior Center dinners. When schools reached out for reading incentives, she prepared coupons that students could redeem when they reached their reading goals.
“I don’t keep track of that. We don’t get reimbursed from the brand. It doesn’t matter. It’s a way of giving back to the community in a simple way, by kids being able to win something and get a free burrito or a taco,” she said.
KFC Taco Bell also sponsors one of the big performing arts events put on by the Kodiak Arts Council each year. Two months ago, it was a production of “The Nutcracker.”
“In regards to that, it’s a huge loss to the community because we do give back so much,” Rohrer said. “I’m going to miss being able to give like that. I’m going to miss seeing the kids running around with the Taco Bell basketball shirt on.”
Rohrer also approached hiring practices like community service.
“I can give a job to a 14-year-old. A lot of places can’t do that anymore because of the limitations,” she said. At KFC Taco Bell, they could clean the dining room and wash dishes. “It’s a great starter job for kids to learn you can have fun when you work, to learn a strong work ethic.”
She said that one of the most difficult aspects of closing down was breaking the news to her staff.
“I have a really good crew right now. It was something that they needed to hear from me before word got out,” she said.
Rohrer spoke first with the Ling Asprec, the manager. Asprec was one of the first employees of KFC Taco Bell in Kodiak, as one of two employees sent to attend a three-month training in San Diego before the restaurant opened.
“We had a lot of tears, a lot of hugs, reminiscing about the last 12 years of working together,” Rohrer said, adding that breaking the news to Asprec felt like letting her down.
From behind the counter, Asprec’s eyes welled with tears.
“It’s my baby,” she said. “I’m broken-hearted right now.”
Then she choked up.
On Jan. 25, Rohrer called a meeting with the whole staff — including high schoolers and some who had worked for the business for years.
“It was a very emotional conversation with them,” she said. “It took me a while to get it out. I sat on the counter and just cried.”
For one employee, KFC Taco Bell will always be remembered as his first job.
“He said, ‘I couldn’t ask for a better first job and a better group of people to work with.’ It’s been a blessing to him. So it was really hard,” Rohrer said. “I hire people hoping they will fit in with who we have. It’s really important to me that people are excited about coming to work and that they have a good time, that it’s more of a ‘I’m going to hang out with my friends today’ instead of ‘oh man, I have to go to work.’”
On Jan. 30, Rohrer broke the news to the community in a Facebook post that was met with more than 170 comments, most conveying sadness over the decision and gratitude to the Rohrer family for their contributions to the community.
“Late last Thursday night with tears running down my face, I had to do one of the hardest things I have ever done, I had to post the sign on our doors at KFC/Taco Bell saying we were closing the doors,” Rohrer wrote on Wednesday. The post on Friends of Kodiak, a closed community Facebook page, garnered more than 850 “likes” within a few hours.
In the two days after the imminent closing was announced, the business saw a surge of customers. While Rohrer initially predicted she’s be able to stay open for two weeks, supplies began to run out within a few days. On Thursday, she announced that the restaurant would be serving its last meal the following day.
“Whether people were showing their support by coming and eating at the restaurant or if it was because people wanted to have their last meal at KFC/Taco Bell, the outpouring of support was so heartfelt,” Rohrer wrote on Facebook. “We were so busy on Friday, that two former employees went into the store and saw how busy we were and went to work serving our customers. An employee who wasn’t working that night stopped by and saw how busy we were and helped us catch up on dishes.”
Rohrer intends to go down with a bang. She has plans for surprise give-aways throughout the final day of business, including sodas and a television set. As far as food items, she expects the stock to be almost gone by the end of the day.
All of the KFC Taco Bell staff members have asked to work on Friday, so Rohrer says her labor costs will be “through the roof.”
“But it doesn’t matter, because they all want to hang out with their second family for the last time,” Rohrer said.
In addition to owning the franchise, Rohrer owns the building in which it resides. Many community members are already speculating about what business will open next in the space, but Rohrer says it’s early for those discussions.
“It’s definitely too soon for us to have any of those conversations or for us to even think about it,” she said.
Despite Rohrer’s announcement that Friday will be the last day of business, a letter campaign spearheaded by the chamber of commerce is seeking to keep the franchise alive.
On Tuesday, Rohrer received an email from chamber executive director Sarah Phillips, asking how she could help.
“When I first read it, I was just flabbergasted. It was so kind of them to reach out, to even say, ‘hey, we want to help, however that may be.’ It was really touching,” Rohrer said, adding that she appreciates the attempt to reach the hearts and minds of Yum! Brands executives.
While KFC Taco Bell is not a member of the chamber, Phillips said it was important to her to support the locally owned franchise.
“The mission of the chamber of commerce is to provide business development for an economically strong region. We’re willing to go to bat for KFC Taco Bell because they are one of the very few franchises in Kodiak that are locally owned and operated,” Phillips said.
After discussing the idea with Rohrer, Phillips announced that the chamber would collect letters of support from the community and send them to Yum! Brands headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky.
“One of our local business owners is being forced to close her business against her will,” Phillips said. “We would love to hear from community members in what ways KFC Taco Bell has helped the community, whether they love the food or have received a donation through them.”
Phillips said the goal is to send the letters on Monday, but she hopes to get more letters from community members.
“If we could get hundreds, that says a lot to a major worldwide franchise. What we need to do is say we’re a small community, but we care about this business. Twenty or 30 letters won’t do anything,” she said. “That’s a big ask in a short time frame, but I really think Kodiak can rise to the occasion.”
Letters can be sent to Chamberdirector@kodiak.org or dropped off at the chamber offices at 100 Marine Way (the Ferry Terminal building). The offices are closed during the weekend.