Owners will soon find out whether diners will rush back or be cautious when the ban on dining inside restaurants is lifted a week from today.
Reservations may be needed on June 5, the first day Oahu eateries are allowed to reopen their dining rooms in 2-1/2 months.
Or they may not.
No one is sure what to expect, and many operators and patrons are proceeding with caution.
For Rick Nakashima, caution is not an option.
“You can’t make a shot unless you take a shot,” said the owner of nine Oahu restaurants, including four Ruby Tuesdays, four Gyu-Kaku Japanese BBQ outlets and the Rainbow Drive-In in Kalihi. All but the Rainbow Drive-In will be opening for indoor seating on June 5, and the drive-in will continue to serve takeout.
“We’ve wanted to get out there as soon as possible to test the waters. If you don’t, you’re not giving yourself a chance at success,” Nakashima said.
Despite some concerns, Nakashima said opening as soon as allowable was an easy decision. One reason is that he wants to give all 600 employees the chance to go back to work.
When it comes to safety, each restaurant will have an employee on duty whose primary job is to make sure all cleanliness and other safety guidelines are met.
Peter Kim is reopening The Signature Prime Steak & Seafood, Little Joe’s Steakhouse and all three Liliha Bakery locations for dining in.
“We will do everything to follow the guidelines for social distancing and safety, for our guests as well as our staff,” he said.
Owner Christine Hirosane said Yanagi Sushi’s several small private rooms that are ideal for families made her decision to reopen easier. The izakaya, known for late-night specials, will be open until 10 p.m. the first night but will return to its 2 a.m. closing time June 8.
“We have a good situation because of the layout of the restaurant, but of course we will practice social distancing,” she said. “And we very much encourage reservations and pre-ordering.”
Reopening is one thing. Turning a profit is another. Due to social distancing requirements, some restaurants will be able to use only 40% to 50% of their tables.
Lee Anne Wong, chef and partner of Koko Head Cafe, said all restaurant owners understand the balancing act of safety and economy, but it is still frustrating. “They’re not telling the landlords to cut our rent in half, but they’re telling us to cut our seating in half,” Wong said.
She is still deciding whether to fully reopen. “We’re looking at the (takeout) numbers every day. … Our numbers are abysmal,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to be busy. People are still going to be cautious.”
Wong is also considering accepting reservations for the first time, and taking the temperature of customers at the door.
“It’s twofold. What are the economics? How many people will come to my restaurant? There’s always pioneers and there’s those who wait and see,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell said Tuesday at a news conference. “I don’t think there should be any pressure. They should open up when they feel safe. And if they feel safe, their customers will feel safe.”
“We’ll definitely be out there to try to get to the new normal. I’m not decided yet but Assaggio’s is my favorite. I could see myself going to Assaggio’s or Roy’s, maybe Maile’s (Thai Bistro). And we love CPK,” Sanj Sappal of Hawaii Kai said. “The question is, How difficult will it be to get in? With the social distancing it may be difficult.”
Most of Sappal’s favorites will be available that first night. A representative from Assaggio’s said all six of its Italian restaurants will be fully open. California Pizza Kitchen and Roy’s Restaurants are planning staggered rollouts. Kahala Mall’s CPK — one of seven in Hawaii — will open June 5, with others to follow.
“We want to do it right and take a cautious approach. We don’t want to go too fast too soon,” regional partner Eddie Spencer said. CPK is also limiting parties to eight, versus the 10 allowed by city guidelines, again to be extra cautious.
Chef Roy Yamaguchi said he will open his 10 Hawaii restaurants gradually through the end of July or later, starting with Hawaii Kai between June 8 and 10.
Decisions to reopen do not seem to depend on the size of the operation. Recurring themes are: No one wants to bring workers back and let them go again, and some restaurants want to see how others navigate sanitation and social distancing issues.
That’s the case with Kalapawai Cafe & Deli’s three Oahu locations and the Bibimbap House in Waipahu. Plus, representatives of both say their takeout businesses are doing well.
“If someone says to other people they caught the coronavirus here, it’s the end of our restaurant,” Bibimbap House co-owner Daven Morikawa said. “The main thing is we want to be safe.”
On the fast food front, Taco Bell/Pizza Hut, Jack in the Box and Burger King will be open for dine-in customers, while Kentucky Fried Chicken is undecided and McDonald’s is allowing individual operators to make their own decisions.
Rainbow Drive-In locations in Kapahulu and Kalihi will remain takeout only. The Pearlridge outlet will follow that mall’s guidelines, and management of the Ewa Beach location had not decided by Thursday.
Zippy’s is among the many restaurants taking a wait-and-see approach.
“We’re going to see how it happens with dine-in (at other venues),” Zippy’s spokesman Daniel Ikaika Ito said. “It takes a lot of customization for a plan to roll out, including getting back in touch with staff, and some re-staffing.”
Kim, of Signature and Little Joe’s steakhouses, closed down all of his restaurants in March for several weeks, even for takeout. He used the time to reorganize and plan for the reopening.
“No one will be perfect at first, but we will emphasize safety and we will all learn,” Kim said. “And the good thing is the steaks are going to be especially delicious because they will be aged so much more.”