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Maui restaurant owners ask liquor commission to help by easing rules

A new hui formed by Maui restaurant owners is pushing the Department of Liquor Control to modify rules to help their businesses survive the pandemic shutdown. The group, the Maui Restaurant Hui, ran a full-page open letter to the department in the June 21 edition of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Maui Edition listing changes they say would help more than 100 restaurants adapt to the “new normal” as they begin to reopen.

“Maui’s restaurant industry has been devastated by the Covid-19 pandemic,” the ad said, leaving “an estimated 10,000 Maui chefs, cooks, kitchen staff, waitstaff and busboys unemployed. The future is bleak for 2020 and 2021 without the reopening of our visitor industry.” Modifying some rules “would help us through one of the toughest situations in the history of our island,” as restaurants face ongoing costs of rent, utilities and property taxes, plus reopening expenses, after months with no income.

“A lot of us might not reopen,” restaurateur Beverly Gannon told the Star-­Advertiser last week. “We need partners now.”

Another restaurant owner, Dana Pastula, agreed the industry needs the Liquor Department and the commission that sets its policies to “be partners with us. All this is new to us,” and food and beverage is a tough industry under any circumstances. Now, “it’s almost like we are opening with our hands tied behind us.”

Some of the hui’s requests are for specific changes, such as quick and efficient permitting to set up tables for social distancing, perhaps by moving some outside, and to allow licensees to rearrange their restaurants as needed within the permitted area without waiting weeks for approval.

But they also request a general update of rules to reflect the modern restaurant industry and improve department processes that restaurant owners say have hindered operations for years.

Liquor licensees’ complaints about a department seen as unhelpful and sometimes punitive are not new. A 2018 Maui County Council audit of the Liquor Control Department and Liquor Commission found them to be operating in an “inconsistent and arbitrary” manner and “not fulfilling … mandated responsibilities.”

The department, which enforces the policy set by the appointed commission, is autonomous and works without oversight by the county or state. It is funded by fees restaurants pay based on liquor sales. All must pay a flat $600 to renew their licenses, which is due this month, with the remainder due in July. The hui is requesting a suspension of liquor fees for restaurants for 2020 and 2021.

Any change to fee requirements is unlikely to come before they are due, however; the next meeting of the Liquor Commission is July 8.

Commission Chairman Nane Aluli said the commission probably will discuss the hui’s list at that meeting. The commission also is looking for a “good, responsive director” who understands restaurants’ needs. Deputy Director Georgette Tyau now heads the department following former director Glenn Mukai’s departure in February.

The hui’s request for help is “absolutely valid,” Aluli said. “They’re fighting for their lives.”

Aluli said the commission will facilitate everything possible, but some items will need discussion. Suspending fees completely is unlikely, but “stretching” payment deadlines, as the Honolulu Liquor Commission recently did, is a possibility.

Streamlining some department processes could be done faster and more easily, he said. The bottom line, however, especially for high-end restaurants, is that changing the rules is not going to be enough. Aluli shares the fears of many restaurant owners that, “If we don’t get the visitor industry back, they’re not going to make it.”

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