OCEANSIDE — There is one unshakeable rule for Matthew and Ave Polack, owners of Key Martial Arts studio in Oceanside: Never say quit.
The husband and wife sensei team maintain a positive, “black belt” attitude, which has been critical to successfully navigating the pitfalls facing small business owners across North County in the wake of COVID-19.
And for the Polack couple’s dojo, which first opened its doors in 2007 at the outset of the last financial crisis, throwing in the towel is simply not an option.
“Sometimes you get punched in the face and you just gotta keep going,” Matthew told The Coast News. “We’re going to keep pushing through. We have to set an example, for our family and students.”
After shutting the studio’s doors this past March, the Polacks said they applied for every grant available to a small business facing financial hardship amidst mandatory statewide closures.
But the duo never received any financial assistance.
“We put in so many applications, our fingers got tired of typing,” Matthew said. “We tried everything possible. I guess we aren’t big enough or fell through the cracks.”
The situation worsened when the studio lost 39 students in a month — nearly one-third of its customers — due to unemployment and other factors related to COVID-19. Members just couldn’t afford to take classes.
Located near Camp Pendleton, Matthew said the family-friendly studio experiences a high turnover rate when students join the military, which is almost expected under “normal” circumstances. Typically, walk-ins and referrals help replenish their class sizes.
“We get a lot of business through referrals by past students and our military people are very loyal,” Ave said. “We are grateful for that.”
But getting new customers since COVID-19 has been tough. Ave (pronounced Ah-vay) still works a full-time job to help the couple make ends meet.
“We are just buckling down, budgeting tighter and making it all work,” Ave said.
A group of parents started a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money for the studio, which has brought in approximately $2,980 to pay the rent, Matthew said. The fundraiser is still active and accepting donations.
To keep things afloat, the Polacks started offering members virtual instruction every day during stay-at-home orders.
Recently, Key Martial Arts has resumed in-person classes again with a limited capacity and following county health requirements, such as maintaining social distance guidelines and temperature screening.
The studio still offers an online course for members every Saturday.
“We’re doing our best, social distancing and taking temperatures when students walk in,” Matthew said.
Amanda Yunker, whose daughter Addison, 8, and her son Braedon, 5, both attend Key Martial Arts, said her children have benefited from both in-person instruction and virtual classes for the past year-and-a-half.
“Virtual classes are going great,” Yunker said. “For my kids, it was a sense of normalcy, when they weren’t getting that anywhere else, at least they could see their instructor on the television screen. It was like seeing their friend.”
After researching several martial arts studios in the area, Yunker said the difference was Matthew’s approach to teaching younger students.
“(Matthew) has a sense of command,” Yunker said. “(Students) respect him, listen to him and I saw my kids getting a really great result from him.”
In particular, Yunker said her son Braedon’s self-confidence has grown since joining Key Martial Arts.
Jesse Froelich, 39, of Vista, was hooked after attending a complimentary class and has taken classes at the studio for nearly three years. For Froelich, he was looking for something different than a typical gym experience.
“I was looking for an exercise program to keep me motivated and I wasn’t interested in the gym,” Froelich said. “It’s such a good break between work and home life. I get in there and one of the first things we do is we bow, kneel and close our eyes. It’s a good Zen moment.”
Froelich appreciates Matthew’s instructional style, particularly the ability to ask questions. Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Froelich has continued to take virtual classes several times per week, often practicing in his backyard.
“It wasn’t the same as real class, but I was still motivated,” Froelich said. “I certainly wasn’t going to quit. I really needed the outlet.”
Student Creed (PDF)
The Key Martial Arts Student Creed. Courtesy photo