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What Happened to Hale Ōhuna, Bethel Street Tap Room and Off The Wall?

An inside look at the closing of three promising Honolulu restaurants.


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Inside Bethel Street Tap Room in Downtown, which closed abruptly in mid-January.
Photo: Courtesy of Bethel Street Tap Room

 

Last Wednesday, Kawehi Haug, co-owner of Bethel Street Tap Room, found out from her neighbor she would be forced to close her Downtown restaurant.

 

The conversation went something like this.

 

“Heard you guys are closing.”

 

“What? No! Where’d you hear that?”

 

Haug, a frequent contributor to this blog and owner of Let Them Eat Cupcakes, went straight to social media, posting a blog about the restaurant’s sudden closure on its website and sharing the news on Facebook and Instagram.

 

“On Wednesday morning, we were forced to close our doors at the Tap Room (home to both businesses) because we are apparently tangled up in a legal lease battle between the primary leaseholder of the space and the landlord,” she wrote on the restaurant’s website. “And, as subletters, we have no recourse. We are as shocked by the closure as anyone else.”

 

Bethel Street Tap Room—which garnered a loyal following for its house-made pickles, hefty hoagies, Nitro coffee and a very comfortable bar—opened in 2014, with Haug’s popular cupcake business occupying a corner. Almost two weeks later, Haug says she hasn’t heard anything from the landlord, the property management company or the primary lease holder yet. But she figures Bethel Tap won’t ever reopen in this location, and is already looking for a bigger, better space. (Her cupcake business will reopen soon in its previous location at 35 S. Beretania St. for the time being.)

 

“Honestly, we’re super bummed out and really angry,” Haug says. “We’ve literally invested our life savings, time and energy into making our bar-bakery concept work, and it was working! We were turning a profit in the 11th month of business, which is phenomenal for a food business of that size. It feels like a huge loss.”

 

The news of Bethel Street Tap Room’s shocking end comes on the heels of the sudden closure of Hale Ōhuna in December. This Kaimukī craft cocktail and noodle bar, run by the talented force behind the successful Koko Head Café and the brainchild of Top Chef finalist Lee Anne Wong, lasted three months before shutting its doors permanently.

 

“The primary reason for closing was financial,” says part-owner Kevin Hanney. “It was an ambitious project with delicious and beautiful food and a great bar program, but it just did not catch on as hoped.”

 

Part of the challenge, Wong says, was that it opened in September, typically a slow time for restaurants. The space—a narrow, bi-level dining area—was tricky and affected service and ambiance. And the restaurant was just not getting the volume it needed and expected to sustain its high costs.

 

“Restaurants are a risky business and, at the end of the day, it’s all about dollars and cents,” Wong says. “We simply could not recover from opening during an extremely low business season and not doing the volume we had hoped for.”

 

Wong is now focusing on Koko Head Café—which she calls her “baby”—and is back in the kitchen there. She feels badly about losing the people who lost their jobs at Hale Ōhuna, who she says were all “incredible individuals who brought creativity, life and hospitality to Hale.” The closure, even now, is still hard.

 

“I was obviously quite devastated, and I think there’s a huge part of me that is still processing,” she says. “In the short amount of time we were open, the menu had begun to evolve in a way that made me optimistic for what we were trying to accomplish ... I have no idea what the future holds, but I know I am at a point of transformation and evolution, so in what I do next, wisdom and experience will play a big part.”

 

Closing a restaurant is rarely an easy choice. Restaurateurs have to consider everything—the financial investment, employees, public response.

 

“It (was) a very difficult decision to make,” Hanney says. “The most difficult is the fact that people lose their jobs. It is especially hard when there are employees who have put in a tremendous effort for the business.”

 

Hanney says he has about 12 more years on the lease on the space vacated by Hale Ōhuna, with plans to reopen a “very casual concept with broad appeal,” he says. “It will be easy to understand, with a bigger emphasis on the bar.”

 

Restaurant closings can be deeply personal for everyone, from owners to chefs to regular patrons who have come to love a particular dish, the friendly bartenders, the familiar atmosphere.

 

And it’s a feeling that lingers, even months later.

 

Almost eight months after the closure of Off The Wall Craft Desserts & Kitchen on King Street, Ed Morita reflects on the experience. The restaurant, which opened to rave reviews, closed after just four months. (The ‘Aiea location closed around the same time due to rail construction.)

 

“Our motto was, ‘We just need two more months,’” says Morita, who’s now the pastry chef at EAT Honolulu and has plans to resurrect his #DessertFirst concept someday. “We had a lot of out-of-town and Asian press interested. We had a bunch of banquet buy-outs coming up. We were also talking with three different Mainland breweries interested in having dinners there. We just needed more time.”

 

Morita wasn’t comfortable sharing details about the restaurant’s demise, but he did say he learned a valuable lesson from the whole experience: “Running the restaurant and the kitchen is one thing. But running the other side—making sure paperwork is filed, making sure bills are being paid—that’s another. As a chef, I don’t usually think about that stuff. I’m always focused on keeping food costs around 30 percent, keeping the liquor stocked, making sure all the food is in, making sure the service is good. I wasn’t even looking at the other end [of the business]. I realize now that I should have been more proactive.”

 

The closure of any business, these chefs and restaurateurs say, is hard and painful. But it’s a time to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and move on.

 

“It’s the perfect opportunity for us to learn and to do it all better and wiser next time,” Haug says. “We don’t want to let this discourage us and allow ourselves to become jaded, but we do want to be much more shrewd the next time around. Live and learn, right? Bottom line: It’s been a rough week, but it can only get better. No struggle, no progress.”

 

READ MORE STORIES BY CATHERINE TOTH FOX

 

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