Returning To The Dakota

Seth Doane is a CBS News correspondent based in New York.
Even as an outsider, it was not an easy meeting to witness. In late October we were given a glimpse of the struggling Dakota Restaurant, including full-access to a meeting in which the boss told his staff they may soon have to close the restaurant. He gave them a timeline. If business did not improve in 30 days, they'd all be out of work.

Thirty days have come and gone and the restaurant is still open. But business has not gotten any better. It appears that the end of the restaurant – barring a miracle – is very near.

The Meert family, who own Dakota, have tried everything possible to stay open and are still contemplating making more changes. But with unemployment in the city of Elkhart at 12.2 percent, many of Dakota's former customers have lost their jobs and, without them, the ability to afford to eat out.

Revenues at the restaurant are down 70 percent from their peak this summer and they owners have dipped into their personal savings accounts, cashed-in part of their 401(k)s and are still struggling to make payroll and pay the bills.

The employees are barely hanging on as well. More than 180,000 full-service restaurant workers nationwide have lost their jobs since July – and the handful of employees at Dakota hope that they will not also join the ranks of the unemployed.

When we were there it struck us that with so many Americans out of work – or fearing that they may soon be out of work – that we should follow this story and return to Elkhart to see how things evolve. You'll see our first follow-up on the CBS Evening News tonight at 6:30 ET.

The city of Elkhart has such staggering unemployment because of the layoffs and factory closings in the RV industry, which once was the main industry in town. The RV manufactures (and support businesses) were hit hard by first the high price of gasoline and now the credit crunch. Elkhart Mayor, Dick Moore, says that there is a "tragic opportunity" in all of this for a potential employer that could move to Elkhart and find a ready, willing workforce that would love to have jobs.

Because Elkhart has struggled so much, it also is the recipient of attention from the state of Indiana which is providing millions of dollars in grants to try to help re-train the workforce here. Much of the aid is targeted to folks that have lost jobs in the RV industry but there is assistance available for people like the employees of Dakota, should the end up losing their jobs. The local office of Indiana Workforce Development has a number of resources for education, training and career counseling.

This is definitely a sad story right now. But, the spirit of the folks we met at Dakota (and plant to continue to follow) is inspiring. Right now they're focused on trying to make their current jobs last as long as possible and each of them are searching for other opportunities. While the story seems sad at the moment – I'm interested to follow it and watch these folks find the silver lining here.

Incidentally, as I was just finishing up writing this blog entry, my cell phone rang. It was Brandon Williams (the guy who owns horses whom you'll meet in the Evening News piece tonight) he called me to say that he was on his way to a job interview at the local mall. So… we'll see… they all hold on to hope.