comscore Hawaii restaurants face heart-rending decisions amid coronavirus outbreak | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
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Hawaii restaurants face heart-rending decisions amid coronavirus outbreak

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Highway Inn restaurant will remain open for customer pickup and restaurant delivery services. Above, Bite Squad courier Nick Rhodes picked up an order Wednesday at the restaurant.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Highway Inn restaurant will remain open for customer pickup and restaurant delivery services. Above, Bite Squad courier Nick Rhodes picked up an order Wednesday at the restaurant.

In an industry normally built on fellowship and good times, the mood turned to heartbreak Wednesday as many restaurants and bars had to release most of their employees.

Dealing with the fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak, closing bars and restaurant dining rooms left establishments reeling.

“This decimated our business for the next two months in a matter of days,” said Lee Anderson, owner and executive chef at Sugar Beach Events on Maui, who had to lay off or furlough 13 full-time staffers who relied entirely on their income from her company.

“My staff was understanding, although heartbroken, and are hoping to be with us again when business comes back,” Anderson said in an email. “As a business owner, letting go of our team was the toughest decision I have ever had to make.”

At Pai Honolulu, general manager Justine Lee said she met with her 20 employees individually to assess their options. She said the restaurant would help those who want to begin claiming unemployment benefits immediately; others could choose to “take a break” and return when the restaurant can fully reopen. It is now serving only takeout, with just two people in the kitchen.

“I worry about their ability to pay their rent,” Lee said. “Even if we reopen, they’re still going to have that deficit.”

Lee, the wife of Pai owner and chef Kevin Lee, is expecting a baby, due on Saturday. This is not how the couple envisioned greeting their first child. “We operate on zero back funds,” she said, “so we’re dipping into our savings to just try and keep the restaurant.”

At Highway Inn, co-owner Russell Ryan said the company is first trying to temporarily reduce the hours of part-time workers, rather than lay off any of its 110 employees. “We are doing everything we can to avoid employee disruption, and normal hours will resume for our staff on the other side of this issue,” he said. “We have not had enough time with this new regime to see if we need to reduce full-time workers’ hours.”

Thomas Ray, co-owner of Square Barrels, a restaurant and bar on Bishop Street, like many restaurant owners reached Wednesday, said it would take a few days to make a decision about staffing.

If he loses most of his staff of close to 20, he said, he is worried about having enough help when the time comes to resume operations. “Our theory is that when the music stops, we won’t be able to get these people back.”

Abigail Langlas, owner of Cake Works, is heavily dependent on orders for special events, and has been seeing many cancellations. She said she’s still assessing the situation for her staff of 15, but today, “I’ll have some difficult calls to make.”

At Tango Contemporary Cafe, co-owner Tami Orozco said the restaurant had a “last hurrah,” a wine-pairing dinner on Tuesday night, with dining parties spaced far apart. “I felt it was a parting party.”

She is still assessing what will happen with her staff of 27. “One day at a time, or sometimes one half-day at a time,” Orozco said. “Things change so fast.”

Lisa Kim, co-owner of Real Gastropub and Brew’d Craftpub, said 37 staffers have been let go, with just five left to keep takeout operations going. It was so sudden, Kim said. “I did not even have a chance to say goodbye and that I hope to see them soon.”

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