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Isle restaurants in survival mode and scrambling to avoid closure

                                Ala Moana Center has cut its hours drastically. Above, diners ate their food Monday inside the Makai Marketplace food court at the mall.
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Ala Moana Center has cut its hours drastically. Above, diners ate their food Monday inside the Makai Marketplace food court at the mall.

For Hawaii’s restaurateurs, these last few weeks have been a day-to-day struggle to stay on an even keel.

“We really feel we’re sailing our ship alone through uncharted waters,” Peter Merriman, owner of four Merriman’s statewide and a partner in five other restaurants, said Monday.

One of Oahu’s highest-profile restaurant owners, Ed Kenney, is closing his Kaimuki restaurants — Town, Mud Hen Water and Kaimuki Superette — plus his catering company, UPtown Events, indefinitely. The restaurants employ about 50 workers.

“We hope to be back in a month, but I don’t know,” Kenney said. “I feel it’s irresponsible to open a space where people can congregate and spread the virus.”

Kenney has a consulting agreement with Hoshino Resorts for Mahina & Sun’s restaurant in the Surfjack Hotel in Waikiki. He said he is in discussions with Hoshino about how to proceed.

Merriman and Roy Yamaguchi, owner of 12 Roy’s restaurants statewide, say they have reduced hours of some employees and in some cases have cut operating hours, but have not had to resort to layoffs, and plan to stay open as long as they feel secure about the health of their staff and guests.

“Our business is down, for sure,” Yamaguchi said, although he couldn’t say how much. “I hate to look.”

Roy’s employs about 600 staffers; Merriman’s, just over 1,000.

Merriman said the implications of a restaurant closure go far beyond business losses. Employees will suffer, and so will every farmer and business in the supply chain, he said. “If we could mitigate the consequences of closing … it’s a lot easier to make that decision.”

White House guidelines released Monday urged Americans to avoid gathering in groups greater than 10 and to restrict dining to drive-thrus, takeout and delivery. Several major U.S. cities and some states have ordered restaurants shuttered or severely restricted their operations.

In Hawaii, however, Gov. David Ige and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell stopped short of such a recommendation. At a news conference Monday, Ige said there are ways restaurants could make changes to allow for social distancing and stay open. Caldwell urged all businesses, including restaurants, to adhere to Centers for Disease Control recommendations that all gatherings be kept to less than 50 people.

Local restaurant owners large and small did say they are reducing the number of tables in their dining rooms, as well as increasing cleaning efforts.

Melissa Cedillo, owner of Elena’s Filipino Foods in Waipahu, said she is going to cut the number of seats in her restaurant to eight from 15 in order to seat people 6 feet apart.

Customers can no longer serve themselves from the popular $12.99 buffet; instead, employees serve them their choices. “We’re getting resistance today but I tell people, the germs. … Social distancing and isolation, it’s gonna work, but everyone has to do it.”

Cedillo has 22 employees, about half of whom have been with the restaurant more than 25 years, some working for her parents. “I don’t want to lay off staff. I’m going to find a way to pay them. I have to,” she said. “If I don’t, they won’t be able to survive, and it will be on my conscience.”

Some of Honolulu’s larger buffet restaurants are shutting down or shifting to a la carte dining. At Kai Market in the Sheraton Waikiki, The Buffet at Hyatt in the Hyatt Regency Waikiki and 100 Sails Restaurant & Bar in the Prince Waikiki, staffers said the buffets would shut down this week.

Self-serve delis are also revamping. Foodland spokeswoman Sheryl Toda said that by this morning the hot and cold bars at Foodland Farms locations will no longer be self-serve. Selections will be packaged, some in heat-safe containers so customers can buy them ready to eat. The two bars at Ala Moana Center and Pearl City Foodland Farms will be closed for the month.

Whole Foods Market made a companywide announcement that it would close all its self-serve stations and taprooms, halt food sampling and block off seating areas, effective Wednesday. As an alternative it is expanding its selection of prepackaged items and items that can be ordered at takeout counters.

At Down to Earth, however, deli managers at two of the five Oahu locations said they’re taking it day by day, pending a decision by their company CEO, Mark Fergusson.

Several restaurateurs said they are willing to make adjustments to get their food to customers.

Jimmy Chun, owner of five Kim Chee restaurants, said that although the restaurants are more dependent on customers dining in, he’s happy to serve takeout, even meeting customers at their cars to pass them their orders.

“We still want people to keep us alive,” Chun said. “If people just stay home, restaurants are going to close.”

Brandon Dela Cruz, marketing director for L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, with 64 franchises in Hawaii and 137 on the mainland, said the chain is “pushing heavily on takeout and (third-party) delivery.”

Rick Nakashima — franchise owner for a Rainbow Drive-In, four Ruby Tuesday and four Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ locations, with 650 employees total — said his restaurants also might try to shift attention away from dining in. “We’re looking at altering some of our television ads and pushing out takeout. We understand some people might want to pick up food, be self-quarantined and not be in a restaurant with another 100 people.”

Nakashima said he feels especially bad for smaller operations. “That’s the sad thing about this. It looks to me like this might put a lot of small businesses away. If you’ve got a little hole in the wall, a mom-and-pop place — that’s America, the little diner. Not Ruby Tuesday.”

Star-Advertiser staff writers Joleen Oshiro, Pat Gee and Dave Reardon contributed to this report.

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