Fernando Rodríguez is struggling.
His family owns Kingsbridge Donut Shop on the corner of West 231st Street and Kingsbridge Avenue, but hasn’t paid rent on the space in months. While they haven’t yet heard much from the landlord, Rodríguez knows it’s inevitable the doughnut shop will eventually be kicked out onto the street.
But he’s too proud to wait for the inevitable. Instead, Rodríguez — nicknamed “Junior” by his customers — is throwing in the towel. Kingsbridge Donut Shop is closing, for good, before October ends.
It’s the end of a 20-year business venture that’s provided something sweet to the Kingsbridge neighborhood just a couple blocks from the library. This isn’t the outcome Rodríguez wanted, and even a little hope from his cousin Javier just wasn’t enough.
Javier, a restaurateur himself, plans to open a taco shop in the neighborhood. Once he heard Junior was considering closing up shop, he started an online fundraiser intended to give the doughnut shop there wherewithal to relocate.
They set a lefty goal $18,000. But after a few weeks, only $1,000 had been committed by customers and neighbors. That’s not a small sum, but it’s also not enough to keep the lights on in the restaurant’s current home, or to make the move somewhere else.
“We’re just calculating things, it’s just not really working out,” Rodríguez said. “Unfortunately, my rent is very high. So we’re just technically calling it quits.”
Like hundreds of businesses across the country, the shop’s troubles really started at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when they were forced to close up entirely. Rodríguez reopened for outdoor dining in June, but with limited funds and only a small, sunny space on the sidewalk outside the store, such a venture just wasn’t bringing in enough revenue.
Indoor dining reopened in the city this past week, but even then, Kingsbridge Donut Shop’s space is so small, it could never fit enough customers needed to help pay off months of debt.
“We tried getting the financial aid from the government and all that stuff,” Rodríguez said. “But then we started calculating and checking out if it was worth the loan, and it just doesn’t balance out.”
Repaying the loans would create its own burden, Rodríguez said, far outweighing the temporary benefits of the money.
The Rodríguez family has owned the shop since 2000. Junior took over from his father Abraham in 2013. The high rent for such a small corner space was a concern from the very beginning, he said, and closing up shop was on his mind even before the pandemic tanked sales.
“For three years we’ve been struggling,” Rodríguez said. “We were thinking about closing up maybe by next year, maybe by two years. It was just really hard, it was just really hard. The coronavirus was basically the catalyst for us to close down, but the last two, three years it really has been a struggle trying to pay the rent and keeping up with other things.”
Fernando pays $10,000 to his landlord each month — a price that kicks up another 5 percent every year. Short of a new lease with a much lower rent and annual increase, Rodríguez just doesn’t see a way the doughnut shop could stay open, even after the pandemic passes.
“I have had people come in and say, ‘Oh, are you willing to sell the place?’ and we say ‘If you’re willing to pay the rent,’” Rodríguez said. “They ask us what the price is, and they’re like, ‘You know what, that’s insanely high.’”
Even when he closes the store, Rodríguez promises he won’t disappear. His cousin Javier is still opening his taco shop nearby, and he’s already offered Junior a job. If he’ll take it.
“He kind of saw this as a key as well, since we know the neighborhood, and people know us,” Rodriguez said.
“He was making a strategy, people know us. He won’t really be starting at zero.
“It’s not going to be the same as before, it’s going to be mostly tacos, mostly Mexican food with a touch of breakfast. There’s no indoor seating.”
Rodríguez’s decision to close has been hard for regular customers, but it’s been particularly difficult on his father, who started the business.
“He was close to retiring, he really was looking forward to retiring from this place,” Rodríguez said. “He was devastated.”
Still, Abraham understands the business far too well. Selling enough doughnuts to pay $10,000 rent is just too much for any young entrepreneur to handle.
And even for him, there’s still the taco place, although Rodríguez admits age is starting to catch up with his father.
“My dad’s not really as agile as he was 10 years ago,” Rodríguez said. “It’s a big difference. Unfortunately, time shows no mercy.”
It doesn’t have to be a sad ending, however, but instead a new beginning. Rodríguez says his memories of serving the neighborhood sweet treats will always be fond ones.
“We did manage to make the customers a family,” he said. “It was a good long run. It was a good 20 years. We’ll be in the neighborhood, I literally live in the neighborhood. So people are going to see me around regardless.
“Just not ‘Junior, the owner,’ anymore.”