When it Comes to Survival During the Pandemic, Everything’s on the Table for These Hawai‘i Restaurants
For 15 years, Hawai‘i’s reputation as a food destination soared. Then COVID-19 came. During shutdowns and visitor fall-off, Hawai‘i’s chefs and restaurateurs have been scrambling to stay afloat and thinking about what lies ahead.
Beyond the hand sanitizers, luxuriously spaced tables and disposable menus you’ll find everywhere, the pandemic has altered the way things run in the back of the house. Many eateries had no choice. Pre-pandemic, the restaurant and bar industry was the state’s largest private employer, providing 85,000 jobs. Today, that number has shrunk by 41%. In December, the University of Hawai‘i’s Public Policy Center surveyed Hawai‘i restaurants and found that unless the pandemic situation changes, more than half could be forced to permanently close by the end of April.
Hawai‘i’s food service industry is wildly diverse—from places designed to pack in tourists to one-person bento operations—so finding a single vision of our restaurant of tomorrow is difficult. But conversations with industry folk, research and personal experience produce a snapshot, albeit a fuzzy one.
Mothers of Reinvention
From the moment Honolulu shut down in early March 2020, restaurants and bars have valiantly swiveled to counteract the pandemic’s effects. We have had a dazzling choice of takeout (with spots such as Senia turning it into a high art), chef kits (Pai Honolulu had a creative series), and premium produce (MW Restaurant sold farmer friends’ goods). But some are reinventing the integral idea of what a restaurant is. Alejandro “Aker” Briceño, the former Nobu Honolulu pastry chef who was part of the pioneering eateries V Lounge (where he introduced the city to Neapolitan pies and Caputo flour) and Prima, returned to Honolulu in 2019 after five years with Nobu Malibu expressly to open a V Lounge 2.0 with then-partner Chris Kajioka. They were negotiating a lease when the pandemic hit. “It changed everything. Financially it didn’t make sense,” Briceño says.
Meanwhile, friend and fellow former Nobu chef and Prima partner Lindsey Ozawa, who left the kitchen to join nonprofit Kāko‘o Ō‘iwi’s farming operation in 2014, saw a gourmet niche waiting to be filled when R. Field closed on Beretania Street.
“Immediately it made sense to create something where we can provide to the community no matter what the situation is,” says Briceño, in essence making himself, Ozawa and their staff essential workers and less susceptible to a shutdown. The duo took over the shuttered Watanabe Bakery space—lock, stock and blackened baking pans—reunited with Fitted mastermind Keola Rapozo (he directed the design of Prima) and in February, opened ‘Ili‘ili Cash & Carry—their interpretation of a bodega, that little-of-everything corner shop you can find from New York City to Los Angeles and scattered throughout Honolulu.
It has a small standing-only counter and offers grab-and-go food—pizza, of course, along with whatever the two well-traveled chefs want to cook (from a Peruvian-Chinese char siu sandwich to lū‘au stew)—along with Italian products from Donato Loperfido’s Flavors of Italy, produce from Kāko‘o Ō‘iwi and an exclusive clothing line by Rapozo. Eventually, the plan is to add goods from people who join a product development program the trio are determined to launch in their spacious kitchen.
In another kind of pivot, D.K. Kodama returned to the kitchen in 2020. The veteran restaurateur had been on the administrative side of his six restaurants on three islands for years, until the pandemic forced him to drastically streamline and cut staff by almost half. That meant getting back on the line, doing restaurant laundry in-house, his wife helping (for free), and temporarily shuttering Sansei and D.K. Steakhouse in Waikīkī. Like a field marshal, he turned his Kaka‘ako restaurant, Vino, into base camp, consolidating his three O‘ahu kitchens into one. Craving Sansei’s mango crab salad hand roll, Vino’s penne Bolognese or D.K.’s aged bone-in rib-eye? They’re on a single menu now, ready for takeout, dine-in, or at a table under the tent that Restaurant Row let him set up. Kodama says he’ll add Vino dishes to his Waikīkī restaurants’ menus when they reopen.
In Kaimukī, Kevin Hanney and Denise Luke got permission to open an outdoor dining area in the parking lot adjacent to their dining cornerstone 12th Ave Grill. In July, Hanney even fired up a grill outside and charred sausages and shrimp. Meanwhile, cancellations streamed in for the lineup of events booked in the restaurant’s private dining room through 2021.
With the space perfectly laid out to be split in two, Hanney was finally able to realize his original career dream—a takeout operation à la the influential 1980s Manhattan food shop Silver Palate. 12th Ave Grill shut down in August and reopened with the DeliCafé in November. The refrigerated case is stocked with their signature Kokohead Foods smoked ‘ahi spread along with caponata salad and a tako terrine, while the takeout menu includes tempting things like gravlax-topped sweet potato “toast” and porchetta panini.
Still, from a high of 45 staff members for a dinner-only restaurant, about 25 now run two operations with longer hours.
Hanney also has a vision that extends beyond his restaurant. After the city allowed restaurants to set up temporary dining areas on city sidewalks, he had renderings made illustrating what 12th Avenue could look like if the south-bound lane was blocked off and turned into one big dining area shared by the street’s eateries, including Duk Kee and Via Gelato. He still needs to win over some of his neighbors who are afraid of losing parking spaces, but he’s trying.
In a city with year-round warm weather, it is crazy that it took a pandemic to spur more outdoor dining options. In January, nonprofit Better Block Hawai‘i—in conjunction with the city’s Parklet Program—completed two parklets on Wai‘alae Avenue around the corner from 12th Ave Grill. Now the “quick, cheap” urban spaces made with upcycled materials from Re-use Hawai‘i are “designed very carefully so the layout takes into account physical distancing,” says Better Block co-founder Daniel Simonich.
The group raised funds specifically for projects that support businesses affected by COVID-19 and have one more location pinpointed in Kaimukī.
We Are Family
Despite the turmoil and lost business, all the chefs I spoke with saw at least one positive come out of the pandemic. For many it was a deepened sense of community, whether with staff, customers or colleagues. Chinatown’s Fête closed for a month and chef-owner Robynne Mai‘i says those “four weeks gave us breath and space to figure out what really is important to Chuck [Bussler, husband and co-owner] and me. We kept coming back to the idea that everyone that worked in the company had to be able to do more than one thing. You couldn’t just be a server or cook or a steward, you had to be able to contribute more.”
In turn, in what had been a customer-comes-first world, Mai‘i now believes “we have to take care of the house first before anything good can happen for the guests.”
On Maui, Mark Ellman, a Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine founding chef, spoke with me by phone in January, three days after Valley Isle restaurants had to reduce capacity from 50% to 30%. He had closed his Frida’s Beach House and Honu Seafood & Pizza in Lahaina for seven months, and did a lot of thinking (while paying $11,000 a month to the bank). He reopened in October with a new schedule—his restaurants would be closed on Sundays for the first time.
“I came to the realization that everyone needs time off,” says Ellman, who has opened 16 businesses, including Maui Tacos. “We talked about other days, but to wake up on a Sunday with nothing to worry about is the greatest feeling—and I want all my staff to have it. I’m losing money but gaining something more.”
He has been moved by his staff’s dedication. Ellman describes seeing his team “working together and giving CPR to the building” the day before reopening Frida’s. “I guess I cry easy, but I just had to go in my office and chill for a bit. It was a little overwhelming because in September you didn’t know if you’d have the chance to reopen. You think about your mortgage, so many things you built, and this invisible thing is killing people and businesses across the world. But we’re hanging in there and we’ll see if we can get through this.”
To do that, businesses have learned that it’s crucial to create a relationship with local customers. Tourist magnet Duke’s Waikīkī went from 350 employees to zero. Even the general manager was furloughed, says Dylan Ching, vice president of operations for O‘ahu and Kaua‘i for Duke’s parent company TS Restaurants.
Ching knew right away that to-go sales couldn’t keep them afloat. “To put it in perspective, we would do eight hours of operation in Waikīkī when it was to-go only. The sales in that time was equivalent to a half-hour of normal business,” he says. When the government-mandated 14-day quarantine turned off the tourism tap, Duke’s courted residents who normally avoid Waikīkī’s crowds.
In the summer Duke’s started a Thursday prime rib buffet and a 10% kama‘āina discount.“It was amazing to see [residents] be like a visitor in their own place. They enjoyed it, like they were on vacation,” Ching says. “There was space for them. Parking was easier.” The company is keeping both and adding another benefit. “All of our restaurants have a concierge slot. We now make slots for locals, so if a local comes in we have a table for them.”
Takeout will also remain an option through the Puka—a window Duke’s carved out of the wall on the Diamond Head side of the Outrigger Beach Resort.
Comfort Is King
The opening of Papa Kurt’s in November says it all. The saimin-and-burger joint has been selling out its pickup-only local favorites since day one. People continue to crave comfort food, and restaurateurs are responding.
When influential Hawai‘i Island farmer Kurt Hirabara died in 2017, chefs Chris Kajioka and Mark Noguchi, who counted him as a mentor, were with his family. At the time, Kajioka told Noguchi he wanted to do something for Hirabara one day. Fast forward to the early days of the pandemic: Kajioka was having lunch with a friend who said all he wanted to eat at the time was local comfort food like saimin and meat sticks—Hirabara’s cuisine of choice. And two ideas clicked.
“It’s a nod to all the great places we love to eat [at]—Ethel’s, Palace Saimin, Sekiya’s—but doing it our way,” says Kajioka. The pandemic has also been “a reset” for him. Seeing Hawai‘i’s social inequities and issues put in high relief by COVID-19 inspired him to create a fund with Hawai‘i Community Foundation, with 10% of his business equity going to it.
— Chuck Wakeman
Papa Kurt’s burgers were instant Instagram stars. W&M Bar B-Q Burger’s sales and social media posts have also increased and 12th Ave Grill added a burger section to its dinner menu. Even Hy’s Steakhouse jumped into the burger bonanza. After two shutdowns, wine director Taro Kurobe says they “had to be creative and innovative”—for its largely local clientele. “With a lot of people furloughed, now is not the time to offer caviar and dry-aged steaks,” he says. They smartly turn their prime Akaushi beef trimmings into ground beef, mix in bacon, and have been making a limited number of patties each day as part of a Boozy Burger Set for Two, which comes with a choice of a cocktail or beef-friendly wines. And when customers said the meat was missing Hy’s distinctive flavor, kiawe charcoal was added to the kit with detailed cooking instructions for grill and stovetop.
“With a lot of high-end dining, you’re paying for the setting and service,” says Chuck Wakeman, butcher, chef and owner of Butcher & Bird. “When you take all that away it doesn’t translate as well and all of a sudden simple rustic comfort food resonates with people more, takes them back to a time when things were more stable, they had home-cooked meals.” When third-party delivery services became a big part of pandemic dining, Wakeman calculated his signature burgers and sandwiches wouldn’t turn a profit afer the 30% hit. Plus, they wouldn’t travel well.
His solution: Jack’s Rib Shack, with a delivery-only menu based on the Sunday barbecue he used to do at Butcher & Bird. The baby back ribs, smoked brisket, smoked turkey leg, pulled pork, pork belly and hot links come with mac and cheese, cole slaw, and the best pork and beans in town. The new venture allowed him to hire an additional full-time person—a friend who was an out-of-work cook from the fine-dining world.
The Big Picture
Transforming the restaurant industry into one big delivery service long-term is counterintuitive to cooks’ raison d’être—to create a sense of community through feeding people.
Restaurants are where we go to be restored, our escapes from cramped apartments and the day’s stress. Fête’s Mai‘i says many of her guests “have said one of the reasons they like coming in for that few minutes or hour, is because it feels normal. Even when we were open for just takeout, it was important to keep the dining room looking right. Lots of places looked like there was a pandemic going on, with containers stacked in the dining room—unconsciously it is a constant reminder. I’ve driven our staff to near madness because I’ve constantly told them we are not leaving stacks of stuff all over the restaurant.”
One of the casualties of COVID-19 was Town, a restaurant that for 16 years was as much about teaching people the meaning and possibilities of what is served on a plate as it was about the delicious food. When chefs Ed Kenney and Dave Caldiero, who remained welcoming presences in the Kaimukī dining room since the restaurant opened, announced its closing in November, their grief-stricken regulars booked the remaining three weeks of seats in a couple of hours.
I caught up with Kenney by phone in early January, six weeks after Town served its last dinner. O‘ahu’s philosopher cook said, “I’m an emotional wreck.”
Kenney chokes up when he talks about having to lay off 65 people. When I called other chefs for this article, many were working on documents to have their Paycheck Protection Program loans forgiven. Mark Ellman said he was lucky to have the room to stash the tables and chairs he was forced to remove from his restaurants; many of his peers have to pay for storage. And John Iha was contemplating whether he would reopen Gochi Grill downtown. Restaurants are like ducks that appear to calmly cruise on water, when actually their little feet are paddling like mad beneath the surface.
At 52, Kenney reflects on how Town has been good to him, paying for his kids’ education, allowing him to purchase the building that is home to his nationally lauded restaurant Mud Hen Water.
The pandemic is personal for him—he hasn’t hugged his son, who has an auto-immune condition, since it started. Caldiero’s father died from COVID-19 in New York in December. Kenney, along with other chefs I spoke to, hasn’t been out to eat in months. “I battle with it every day.”
Kenney recently read the milestone 1969 essay “Think Small” by Kentucky writer, farmer, environmentalist and all-around dissenter Wendell Berry. The chef was blown away by its timeliness and view that “the American dream is founded on thinking big.” Kenney admits he fell into that for a while.
“I really am starting to think little. I’ve surfed more in this last year than I have in the last 20 years. In this business, I would get home and my kids were asleep; in the morning they had already left for school. It allowed me to fuel my passions, but at the same time it cost me a lot.”
The “think little” concept maybe says more about what might be in store for diners than a thousand takeout promos. The concept is already visible in the hopeful venues that have opened amid a pandemic—Keaka Lee’s Kapa Hale, Colin Hazama’s roaming C4 Table, even the throwback Honolulu Crack Seed Store. And it is what is moving Kenney forward.
“That sense of community that we were able to foster when we had one place … in this ‘think little’ outlook I am looking forward to rebuilding that part of the business.”