What It’s Really Like to Open Your Own Restaurant, Then Close It For Good
An owner gives us the personal view from the other side of the bar.
Photo: Courtesy of Kawehi Haug
It was on a Wednesday night last year that I had one of those moments of clarity that people like Oprah love so much. I was sitting on a bar stool in my own bar, and the place was packed. Any entrepreneur business owner will tell you about the high they get when they see something they’ve built themselves being enjoyed by crowds of people. We love long lines. We love blowing the last keg of beer and opening the last bottle of Jameson.
But on this night, that joy was compounded by the realization that I get to pack the house in a way that looks very different than it does in bars anywhere else.
Alx Kawakami was our featured musician and had brought with him his big, loyal following, including his father and brother, his bandmates in popular local band Mānoa DNA. The crowd was loud and happy. A sing-along to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” could be heard across the street. Then someone yelled out for a Hawaiian song. I can’t even name the song now, but I remember looking over the crowd and seeing people stand up and make their way to the stage to cheers and applause from their table mates. First, a couple of women. Kawakami’s new wife got off her bar stool, then a couple of guys. Soon, some 15 or 20 guests had abandoned their pūpū and beer to form an impromptu hula hālau around Kawakami’s stage, every dancer claiming a small space of bar floor to dance in perfect synchronicity with each other. Turns out some had danced together before and others were strangers who just happened to be in this bar on this night.
The guy sitting next to me at the bar—a transplant from somewhere in the Midwest—turned to me, leaned in so I could hear him over the applause and the chee-hoos and said, “This. This is why I stay.” I nodded in agreement. Smiled. Asked if he wanted another round—this one’s on me, I said.
Owning a business in the food industry is hard—it’s competitive, it’s hard on your body and even harder on your psyche. Finding loyal, hard-working employees is a constant challenge, and the tangle of red tape that is Uncle Sam’s giant book of rules and regulations is almost impossible to navigate. And then there’s Yelp. Talk about a layer of pressure that no one’s ever needed ever. And doing it all in Hawai‘i? Paradise has its price. The cost of goods is high. Shipping equipment and supplies to Hawai‘i is expensive and slow. Taxes are insane.
Get all of that under control (ish), and then you look around. You’ve laid everything else out on your reclaimed wood tables with the reinforced chairs that cost you a fortune, and all you have left is hope. Hope that people—lots and lots of people—will walk through your doors, eat a meal they like, drink a tall glass of something cold and mildly addictive and then come back again tomorrow and do it all over again. When the people keep coming back—well, that’s everything.
Kim Potter and Haug behind the bar.
Photo: Courtesy of Kawehi Haug
In January, we closed our bar after 14 months in business. For most food businesses, that’s not long enough to know if the risk was even worth it. For us, it was worth it. We were profitable before we even popped the cork on our one-year anniversary. But, even if we hadn’t been seeing a profit, it was worth it.
I can say that now. Five months ago, after we discovered we had made a business deal with someone who used our investment in the bar to pay off some big, old debt to the landlord instead of using it to build the business, my answer might have been different. I risked my first business—a small but money-making bakery—to build a second business, and it didn’t work out. Now, standing back at my oven in my little bakery, my entire staff having been laid off, every day is like the first day. The bakery makes seven years this year, but we’re operating like a startup. We lost everything, and we’re starting over.
But after months of anger, disbelief, overdrawn bank accounts, broken relationships, guilt, embarrassment and huge loss, I do believe it was worth it. This business is fickle, it’s competitive and it’s exhausting as hell. Friends will take you for everything you have and enemies do them one better. Large sums of money will spend like pocket change and you’ll never get another good night’s sleep.
But for us, the food and drink business people, it’s not really about the food and drink. It’s about hospitality. For me, it’s the pleasure of your company. I’m not a baker or a bartender or a chef. I’m a hospitalitarian.
Looking back at the past 20 months of my crazy life, I would do it all again if it meant I could see your face when you eat your first bowl of Portuguese clams. I would raise a glass to you, and the guy on stage. To his family and his hula-dancing wife. To this night that is everything I want it to be. To the unique cultural inheritance of ho‘okipa that we Hawaiians honor every time we welcome friends and guests, and every time we feel welcomed. It’s the thing that makes me go back to my favorite bars and eateries time and again. Because, here, we get it. There’s no place on Earth like a local bar. Karaoke and fried saimin, with a side of pipikaula? Oh, hell yes.
So we keep going. We take the lessons of loss and apply them to the next great thing. Maybe it’ll be big. Maybe not. But it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s here, and you are, too. Eating, drinking and then coming back again tomorrow.