Honolulu is often noted for having an impressive selection of restaurants for a city of its size because of its visitor industry. But until tourism recovers sufficiently to support the industry’s spin-off retail businesses, restaurants are unlikely to recover from the pandemic-induced recession, either.
The city has offered help to restaurants, including aid from the federal cache of pandemic relief funds, the CARES Act. Simply put, however, officials need to explore further avenues for helping them, likely for an extended period.
Restaurants operate with high overhead and slim profit margins. And that’s with typical dining-out activity — which, when COVID-19 hit and businesses shut down, dropped to zero. Many restaurants ramped up their takeout and delivery options to compensate.
But it’s been a tough conversion, and not entirely successful at capturing what’s been lost. During normal times, about 80% of a restaurant’s business comes from its dine-in customers, with about 20% from takeout, Victor Lim, legislative liaison for the Hawaii Restaurant Association told a City Council panel last week.
That formula has been flipped, Lim said. Most of the reopened restaurants have had to restrict dine-in space to only 50% capacity, lacking established outdoor seating, and most have not had the time to build up their takeout demand to fill in the gaps.
There are delivery apps that in theory expand a restaurant’s reach, but many restaurateurs complain that they take up a lot of the profit from those sales, too.
The Council panel, the recently formed Economic Assistance and Revitalization Committee, met with industry leaders who presented members with a grim prediction: Between 20% and 30% of restaurants could close by the end of this year.
The city administration has made CARES money available to restaurants to help cover the costs of upgrades to comply with separators, floor markings, reconfigurations for takeout orders and other short-term fixes. Committee Chairman Tommy Waters said he favors increasing eligibility for these programs to businesses employing up to 100 people, but added that legislation is still being drafted.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell also endorsed a program allowing restaurants adjacent to city-owned sidewalks and malls the option of using that extra space to spread out tables for dining. The program took effect June 5; links to registration forms and program rules are online (www.honoluludpp.org — scroll down to the June 5 announcement).
This should be very helpful to some eateries, but other cities are pushing out the envelope even further. Santa Monica officials, for example, this week is beginning an installation along one of its major thoroughfares to expand the public right-of-way.
For the next year, parking and vehicle turn lanes are being removed to widen the area on the sides, separated from traffic by barriers, available to shops as well as restaurants.
In Hawaii, with year-round temperate weather, similar changes could be considered in at least some zones around the island.
With more federal aid for materials such as acrylic dividers, some restaurants could reclaim more interior seating space as well.
Leeway on new regulations, such as the newly enacted ban on single-use containers, is justified: Restaurants increasing takeout service could use up their supply stock.
Finally — even most importantly — residents should make a real effort to support these businesses, if they can afford to. Restaurants are among the elements that make a neighborhood feel like home, and for now, they will rely on their neighbors to make it through.