Hawaii residents have at least a month to remain in quarantine, but in the last couple of weeks a glimmer of hope for the future has emerged — several restaurants that went dark at the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown have reopened.
Among those that have sprung back to takeout life are Alan Wong’s, La Tour Cafe, Fete, Doraku Sushi in the Royal Hawaiian Center, and Old Spaghetti Factory, where Chairman Chris Dussin said the company has “implemented strong social distancing and sanitizing procedures to ensure our employees and the public we are serving are safe.”
For many restaurateurs, the experience has been a reality check that will inform their practices once the green light is given to open up dining rooms.
At Matsumoto’s Okazuya and Restaurant in Kalihi, owner Todd Matsumoto made the decision to close his doors March 16.
“My daughter was pregnant, my dog was pregnant. At the time we didn’t know what (the coronavirus) was so we shut our doors until we knew how this thing was being spread. Now we’re more educated so we just decided to reopen May 1.”
Those who stop by the okazuya will find a glitzier version of its former self. Matsumoto took advantage of the downtime to give both okazuya and restaurant a face-lift.
“The first thing I did when we closed was pay my rent for April. Then I started cleaning and got carried away and started painting the walls of the kitchen, then I took everything out and redid the floors, the whole nine yards.
“I even made a takeout window that’s blocking the front door.”
To start, he is offering his okazu menu only, including regulars’ favorites of chow fun and fried chicken. Restaurant dishes may come later.
Even though he’s optimistic about business resuming, if only in a small way, he still feels some trepidation in encountering strangers without masks.
“This whole time, my family never went out for takeout food. We just stayed home and cooked our own breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. When the beaches opened, I could still see people walking around without masks. To me, they’re the guinea pigs.”
IT WAS the maskless masses that led John Iha, chef-owner of Gochi Grill, to close his doors March 30. He had intended to keep his takeout shop open but said at one point crowds were filling his small space, creating an unsafe situation.
“It really got out of hand. People were not wearing masks and not practicing social distancing. I looked at my staff’s eyes and they were freaked out. That pushed me to close, because my employees and family are worth more to me than money.”
He reopened for a two-day pop-up last week to see whether it was feasible to continue solo. But it wasn’t easy, and he is rethinking his next move.
“I intended to take orders through Instagram only, but word got out through Facebook and I started getting private messages and emails from all over the place. It was hard for me to figure out where all the orders were coming from. I mean, I’m good at cooking, but terrible at everything else.”
He allowed customers to preorder, choosing from nearly a dozen items, but when he started losing track of requests he switched to Plan B. “I started making anykine stuff, because I knew I was lost and told everybody I had something equally delicious for them. I wanted to accommodate everyone and not let anyone fall through the cracks.”
He is now contemplating Sunday pop-ups offering fried rice topped with a range of proteins, from seared meatloaf to lemon grass fried chicken.
IN WAIKIKI, the Hilton Hawaiian Village Resort remains closed, but Hatsuhana Japanese Restaurant reopened April 26 with a menu of $11 to-go bentos with two entree choices.
Owner Yukiko Yamagishi said she had initially planned to stay open from the start, but could see her employees were scared.
“A lot of them live in places like Pearl City and Ewa Beach and they were taking public transportation. I hated seeing them suffer.”
She closed on March 21, but said being armed with more knowledge of COVID-19 and acquiring enough personal protective equipment has made all the difference.
“I’m so happy to see people I know returning. A lot have been Hilton employees who are coming to support us.”
In the restaurant’s downtime, she too was in renovation mode, essentially clearing the two-story restaurant’s ground-level dining room to add a takeout area, and creating a more casual cafe space that will allow social distancing between diners. “I always wanted to renovate, but it was very hard to do while full service was going on.”
She and her chefs are also working on new menus focusing on to-go fare such as a sushi burrito they’d never tried before.
IN KAKAAKO, Real Gastropub has reopened after being closed since March 18, when owners Lisa Kim and Troy Terorotua, who also own Brew’d in Kaimuki, realized it wouldn’t be economically feasible to keep the cavernous brewery restaurant open.
“When you turn on the gas, electricity and add payroll, the costs are still the same whether one person came or 100,” Kim said. “Now we have one light switch on in the kitchen, and no AC.”
Commiserating with Grant Sim, owner of Big G’s Catering, led Terorotua to reopen Real.
With his catering events canceled, Sim teamed up with Terorotua, Kim said. “So now it’s Troy and Grant in the kitchen working without pay, making comfort food.”
Real had more of a tapas menu, Kim said, “but comfort food is good right now. And people want meat. The most popular dishes are the prime rib plate and Korean BBQ plate.”
Plate lunches run $10 to $12, and Big G’s Famous Bread Pudding with creme anglaise is $5. Beer and liquor are offered to go, as well as growler fills from $8.50 for 16 ounces to $18 for 64 ounces.
KIM SAYS she’s heartened by guests who understand the plight every restaurateur is facing, and have been tipping well.
“One guy has been coming by for a growler and tips $100 every time.”
None of the restaurateurs has any delusions about a return to normalcy after the dining room ban is lifted.
“Before, if we had only 25% occupancy it was a lousy, lose-money night, and if that’s the case, why be open?” Kim said. “I don’t know how soon customers will be coming back. If that’s all we can do, how are we gonna be able to pay the bills? Utility bills continue to come and nobody is talking about forgiveness, only deferrals.”
She also wonders whether restaurant workers will want to return. Many who were paying taxes on their tips are now earning more through unemployment plus a $600 weekly federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program benefit.
“We really need to get together as an industry and talk about these things and maybe come up with some ideas and recommendations for our lawmakers.”
Tom Jones, chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association and owner of Gyotaku Japanese Restaurants and Koromo Katsu &Curry Bistro, said the organization is taking its list of proposed reopening guidelines and recommendations to the governor “so he knows we’re serious and want to work together to protect our industry.
“I think restaurant workers have more health-safety training than any other industry outside of health professionals. We want to be ahead of the curve and be prepared early, so when they say go, we’re ready.
“It’s challenging, but if you look for silver linings, those who rise to the occasion will end up better because of it.”
But for most, it’s hard to see beyond the dark tunnel.
Kim, who’s accustomed to giving staff and customers big hugs every time she sees them, said she’s sad that human touch is now off limits. “I feel like there’s nothing to look forward to.”
“It’s super sad,” Iha said. “Even after the ban is lifted people are still not going to be downtown the way they used to.
“Everything is so messed up to the point you feel defeated already. Maybe I gotta go back to school. Maybe it’s time I learn something else.”
Matsumoto has only a year remaining on his lease, and if running a restaurant becomes untenable with COVID-19 still a threat, he may not renew.
He originally opened his restaurant to support his young family, and his daughter is now 20.
“I’ve been here 15 years, never taking a vacation, so if this thing is still messed up I’m just gonna close the restaurant, buy a boat and be a bum.”
>> Matsumoto’s Okazuya &Restaurant: 1323 Gulick Ave., 848-7464. Open 5:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays.
>> Gochi Grill: 1111 Bishop St. Look for Instagram updates @gochigrill.
>> Hatsuhana Japanese Restaurant: Hilton Hawaiian Village, 946-8287. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
>> Real Gastropub: Keauhou Lane, 506 Keawe St., 200-2739 Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays.
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.