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The Weekly Eater: Oahu restaurants face challenge of welcoming back diners

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Chef Chai Chaowasaree has spread out the tables at his restaurant, Chef Chai, to allow for social distancing rules as he prepares to reopen his dining room Friday.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Chef Chai Chaowasaree has spread out the tables at his restaurant, Chef Chai, to allow for social distancing rules as he prepares to reopen his dining room Friday.

For all who love restaurants and the experience of dining out, the green light to reopen dining rooms on Friday gives reason to celebrate what might seem like a return to normalcy. But it will be anything but normal. Customers will be greeted by staffers in masks offering streamlined menus in far less densely packed rooms. And reservations may be a requirement as the state has asked restaurants to consider a reservations-only policy to control volume and prevent lines.

Social distancing means many restaurants will have to reduce seating capacity by 50% or more, and for many, simply opening their doors in this climate represents a break-even, or even money- losing proposition.

“The profit margin for restaurants is already very low,” said Chai Chaowasaree, owner of Chef Chai. “If you’re making 8%, you’re doing good.” Most restaurants have a profit margin of 3% to 5%.

Chaowasaree is reopening with a leaner floor plan and new menu that, in addition to his more upscale dishes, will offer immunity-boosting dishes.

“It’s still going to be a challenge because most restaurants will be down to one-third full, but we still have to pay the same rent and the same utilities with reduced capacity and increased expenses, because now we have to buy masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, protective barriers, so many things.”

He said restaurants on the mainland are adding a COVID-19 fee to diners’ tabs to recoup some of the newly incurred expenses.

“It could work, but only if all restaurants do it and it becomes a norm. If only one or two do it, customers will look at it as taking advantage of them, but it’s not taking advantage. In many cases, the owners have no choice.”

Tom Jones, chairman of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, and owner of Gyotaku Japanese Restaurants and Koromo Katsu & Curry Bistro, said his monthly bill for gloves and masks is $500 to $600 for his takeout business alone. He is among dozens of restaurateurs simply hoping to break even.

“That’s the goal until all of this goes away,” said chef Chris Kajioka, who operates Senia with chef Anthony Rush and Katherine Nomura. “It’s tough because you work so hard and that’s the goal.”

To keep his operations lean, D.K. Kodama of DK Restaurants has temporarily consolidated his three restaurants, d.k Steak House, Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar and Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar, under one roof at Vino. He’s been offering takeout since May 19 and aims to open for sit-down dining with more streamlined options for Italian, Japanese or American steakhouse cuisine.

His staff is limited to his managers, chefs, plus wife and three kids.

“When the tourists come back and hotels are at 80% occupancy, people start making money and everyone can go out again comfortably, until that happens, we just gotta make do,” Kodama said.

That day may come sooner than expected. The Kahala Hotel & Resort reopened Monday, and takeout is available from Hoku’s, The Veranda and Seaside Grill. Those restaurants will open for sit-down dining Friday, including entertainment at the outdoor Seaside Grill.

Although the privately owned Arancino at the Kahala will remain closed for the time being, the Arancino on Beachwalk location reopened May 22 for to-go pastas, pizzas and sides.

One big question is whether diners feel safe enough to return for a sit-down experience that involves high-touch practices.

ALTHOUGH MOST restaurant staffers are versed in food safety procedures, new policies in the State Department of Health Roadmap to Recovery and Resilience require a “thorough cleaning and disinfection of frequently contacted surfaces after each meal service to include but not limited to tables, chairs, partitions, condiments, reusable menus, etc.”

Toward that end, Restaurant XO owner Kevin Lee developed a QR code that allows his menu to be read on a phone by those with QR scanning apps. He and Jones said they would also allow guests to bring their own cups and silverware if they feel more comfortable doing so.

Jones said restaurants have been safely offering takeout without incident, but his staff is uneasy about interacting with customers who will be maskless while eating.

“They’re asking for hazard pay,” he said. “Already I have people calling up for graduation parties of 10, and we’ve already seen what’s happened in states like Alabama, where not everyone is being careful. I think in Hawaii we’re better behaved, but there will be some of that, and how do you deal with it?”

He said restaurateurs these days also have to contend with social media and the possibility that guests offended by another party’s rowdy behavior might post video that goes viral, casting a negative light on the restaurant.

Kevin Aoki, owner of Bluetree Cafe, Dora­ku Sushi and Qing Mu, said it will fall on restaurants to uphold state and federal Centers for Disease Control safety guidelines.

Aoki, who also owns restaurants in Miami and Atlanta, said that with the lifting of stay-at-home orders in those cities, “People are not paying attention to the CDC rules, so we have to make sure we uphold them, because if something were to happen at one of our restaurants, it would be really bad news for us.”

He is working with the company Ecolab on sanitation, and is increasing his focus on outdoor patio dining.

In addition to Doraku’s regular fare, the “Happy Hour All Day” takeout menu he launched will continue to help those struggling financially. The menu gives a 35% to 40% discount on a vast range of sushi and izakaya items.

With the possibility of asymptomatic customers coming in and infecting other diners, Jones said he will install temperature-checking devices for those who want to use them, but won’t make temperature checks mandatory unless a surge of outbreaks follows the reopening of tourism.

At Chef Mavro, chef/owner Jeremy Shigekane is delaying his opening until mid-June, and even then, it will most likely be a soft reopening to unveil his new upscale-casual bar-lounge concept.

“I think it’s still too soon to open. We’re still getting new information about how the virus is affecting children, and I wouldn’t feel right if someone were to get sick, even if it’s not our fault.”

He said he would be most receptive to small private parties that allow for easy tracking and contacting of guests if any cases materialize.

EVEN SO, many restaurateurs are anxious to get back to work.

“It’s been two months and I’m nervous about opening up, but in a good way,” Aoki said. “I’m really excited and fired up, and I think my staff is fired up.”

After opening he will turn his attention to his next venture, Indochine 1938, which had been set to open in April. Now he is aiming for a July 15 opening.

Kajioka was also days away from opening Cafe Miro Kaimuki in March when the order came to close dining rooms. “I was super excited about the food and how the dining room looked. I just wanted everyone to see it.”

He will now open June 10 with his original prix-fixe dinner format of six courses for about $65, in keeping with former owner Shigeru Kobayashi’s tradition of affordable degustation menus. He had also planned to offer an a la carte menu at the bar, but because social distancing has reduced seating significantly, he put that plan on hold. “It didn’t make sense to come up with a menu just for four to 10 people all night.”

Plans for Saturday and Sunday brunches are also on hold until he sees how dinner traffic shapes up.

At Senia, the dining room will remain closed, but takeout service begins Saturday.

“It’s been great to get the team back together again because one of the fun aspects of the restaurant business is the team aspect. We usually see these people more than our own families.”

Kajioka is taking a wait-and-see approach because, he said, “With so many restaurants reopening it’s going to be tough to fill them until we get tourists back.”

In a way, the return to restaurant dining puts more responsibility on customers to plan ahead. State guidelines suggest ordering when making a reservation, to minimize time spent at the restaurant. On the higher end, restaurateurs are unlikely to pressure customers to preorder, but it works to the advantage of smaller operators such as Asian Flavors in the Ohana Hale Marketplace.

“It helps us to plan ahead and gauge how much we need so we don’t waste food,” owner Ash Thairathom said. “I try to schedule pickups every 15 minutes so people don’t have to wait for their food.”

She noted that due to COVID-19-related closures at mainland meat-packing plants, her costs have risen, doubling for some products. “Although my expenses have gone up, I’m keeping my prices the same because times are hard for everyone.”

CUSTOMER SUPPORT is crucial because not all restaurants will survive. Jones said he expects to see fallout by late July or August, when federal assistance money is long gone, unless more can be done to help the industry.

Chaowasaree said, “I think many restaurants are not gonna reopen, especially the old-timers who already had a lot of challenges and hard time finding help. I think this will push them to the breaking point, where they think, ‘Might as well retire.’”

———

Go to FoodAGogo.org on Friday to check which Oahu eateries are reopening for sit-down dining. The Hawaii Agricultural Foundation’s site is tracking reopenings statewide.


Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at nkam@staradvertiser.com.


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