Cafe and karaoke spot Lark and Owl owner to sell business for $1

With COVID-19 entering the community just months after Lark and Owl was opened, current owner Yi Zhang said there has been a string of financial and staffing difficulties since, prompting him to sell the establishment.

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The Lark and Owl is seen on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.

Claire Benson, News Reporter


Iowa City cafe Lark and Owl is set to receive new ownership after only a year and a half, with owner Yi Zhang offering to sell the business for $1.

Zhang said with COVID-19 caused immense financial and staffing difficulties for Lark and Owl after people began taking more precautions and businesses closed for takeout only last March.

Zhang, who also owns Jianghu Asian Street Food in Iowa City, said in order to keep his primary business alive, he said needed to sell Lark and Owl. Zhang said he did not want to give the business up for free and wants to use the single dollar to remind him of this business venture in the future.

“I didn’t see much future under so much rent and loan burden right now,” Zhang said. “Giving [the business away for] free would make me feel too bad. If I sell that place, I will get a brand new one U.S. dollar, and frame it to remind myself in the future.”

Since March hardly any customers have made their way into Lark and Owl for karaoke, where the business earned bulk of its profit. With making minimal karaoke customers, he said he was often unable to afford to staff the business.

“It’s all because of COVID-19,” Zhang said. “We suddenly lost business and I tried to overwork myself to keep things running, but after a year, I am about to collapse physically and mentally.”

To renovate Lark and Owl to its current state and desired look, Zhang said he spent over $110,000 on kitchen renovations and crafting a designated karaoke space.

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Off the intersection of Gilbert and Burlington street, in a quaint storefront tucked next to an alleyway, Lark and Owl catered to early risers and late-night customers, serving oriental breakfast foods and traditional entrees.

Lark and Owl received dozens of satisfied reviews on Facebook, representing their steady flow of customers prior to COVID-19 bringing restrictions and challenges to the establishment.

Zhang said there are currently five or six interested buyers, and he’s waiting on the first of them to sign the lease and take over.

Yi Zhang poses for a portrait on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. Zhang is the owner of both The Lark and Owl, and JiangHu Asia Street Food. Zhang combined both places due to loss of revenue from the pandemic. (Jeff Sigmund)

With the extensive work and money Zhang put into Lark and Owl, the new owner will be able to start running the store as soon as they sign the lease.

Iowa City Nighttime Mayor Joe Reilly said he believes a combination of COVID-19 difficulties, Lark and Owl’s location, and Zhang managing two businesses created challenging and unforeseen business environment, leading to Zhang’s decision to sell Lark and Owl.

“When you’re doing two businesses at once, sometimes you have to pick which one you want to stick with,” Reilly said. “It sounds like his Jianghu Asian Street Food was just more established, and it’s unfortunate he had to make that choice.”

Reilly said COVID-19-caused changes in service for business owners — especially late-night bar and restaurant owners — has provided both benefits and drawbacks.

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“Obviously this is difficult for everybody. It’s changed the way we’ve operated,” Reilly said. “It’s changed the way we serve our customers. But some have found some wins and some successes and in changing the way they operate. Some, in Lark and Owl’s case, had to make that decision to just bow out.”

Nancy Bird, Iowa City Down District’s executive director, said she’s seen restaurants across downtown Iowa City become seriously impacted by these restrictions and financial losses.

“The restaurant industry has been pretty devastated by COVID-19,” Bird said. “There have been impacts across all industries for sure, but you know we have a large concentration of restaurants downtown, so we’re particularly concerned about those vacancies.”

In a survey conducted by the Iowa City Downtown District in December 2020, 14 percent of 59 responding businesses reported they were considering temporarily closing, 5 percent considering selling the business, and 3 percent considering permanent business closure.

Bird said since health and safety COVID-19 restrictions were placed onto downtown businesses last March, Lark and Owl isn’t alone in an uptick in business closures or sales.

“We have a number of businesses that have left, and I think we’re also seeing a number of businesses being sold,” Bird said. “We knew that the economic impact of closures and changes to service models, not everybody was able to handle it. It’s just been too much so we’re starting to see some of those businesses go.”

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