Pandemic Proof: Jill Cockson grows through COVID-19 mitigation measures

Swordfish Tom's
Posted at 3:39 PM, Dec 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-28 19:49:29-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Swordfish Tom's is a pre-prohibition style speakeasy in the Kansas City Crossroads.

Like countless other businesses in the Kansas City area, the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to shut its doors for what owner Jill Cockson thought would be a 15-day closure.

First, she paid the staff 12 weeks salary with a message.

"Save this money because when we open back up, we're going to be at limited capacity and you're actually going to take a pay cut after we opened back up and that's what happened," Cockson said.

In the summer of 2020, Cockson posted on the speakeasy social media page that masks would be required.

"If you understand the way masks work, they were never for yourself," Cockson said. "They were for other people, so when I required my guests to wear masks, it was for the other guests in the room and for my staff."

There was hand sanitizer, contact tracing at the door and social distancing inside. Soon after, the critiques and one-star reviews started coming.

When Cockson announced vaccines would be required along with a plea for people to get vaccinated, the response from some was heated.

Swordfish Tom's comments
Swordfish Tom's comments

Cockson acknowledged that some of the comments were frustrating but emphasized, "I also know that we're doing everything we can to do what we believe is right and I really have faith in that."

Despite countless warnings about a lack of business and support, Cockson is celebrating the opening of a third bar in the Kansas City area.

Drastic Measures opened in Shawnee in 2020. In 2021, her latest concept, the Chartreuse Saloon, opened in the Crossroads just blocks from Swordfish Tom's.

This year, the National Restaurant Association found more than 110,000 bars and restaurants were forced to close temporarily or permanently due to COVID.

Sales alone fell by $240 billion in 2020 according to the association, but not Cockson's spots.

"Communities require people caring about each other and it's not political. Caring about each other isn't political and it's so sad to see care politicized," Cockson said. "The right thing to do when you think about caring for people is always obvious. It's not always easy, but the right thing to do is obvious. It's a matter of having the integrity to actually do it and stand by it and I firmly believe that if you're small enough, you have that ability."

Now, as so many businesses are struggling to find employees, all of the original staff are still working in her concepts nearly two years after the start of the pandemic.

Cockson told KSHB 41 News the paycheck protection program funds allowed her to pay everyone their salaries and tips for the duration of the shutdown, which lasted much longer than originally estimated.

Although she wouldn't want to go through the experience again, she believes it made her and her businesses better.

Cockson ended by sharing, "I think small is the new big. It's resilient."