Watching the back-and-forth volley of restaurant openings and closings has been like watching a pingpong match.
With no strategic plan from the government beyond “wait and see,” restaurateurs have taken to self-policing, deciding themselves whether it’s time to close their dining rooms as a result of rising COVID-19 infections in Hawaii.
This has led to frustration on the part of customers who may see a restaurant open for dining one day, then restricted to takeout-only service the next, or worse, closed completely until further notice.
Calling restaurants ahead of time to check on their status has become a necessary part of the dining experience, as online information becomes outdated quickly.
Among those who’ve recently closed temporarily is Gochi Grill owner John Iha, who decided to sit out August once the daily number of positive COVID-19 cases climbed into three digits last month.
“My grandma lives with me and she’s 95, so I can’t bring anything home,” Iha said.
He’s had a plan since the first coronavirus lockdown in March: “I anticipated a roller coaster ride, and that we were gonna go into a pattern of opening two months and closing one month. When the state didn’t shut everything down again, it threw me off.”
He said he had planned to open his doors during lockdowns when fewer people were going out, because he fears many are still not taking the deadly situation seriously. “I don’t know why people keep blaming tourists. It’s not coming from tourists, but people in the community who are throwing parties in their yards.”
Given last week’s closures of beach parks, hiking trails and specific categories of businesses, he sees another dining room closure coming if COVID numbers do not go down.
Before that happens, he said the state needs to do a better job of giving restaurants fair warning. “The way the state is handling this is causing hardship for all restaurants. All the guys with inventory are scared because they don’t know what the state is gonna do. If they say ‘shut down tomorrow,’ all that food is gonna go bad.”
ON SUNDAY, Kevin Hanney temporarily shut the doors to 12th Ave Grill and Chop Chop Rotisserie, with the idea of taking a brief respite to formulate a plan for operating in the worst-case scenario of coronavirus circulating indefinitely.
“When we reopened our dining room June 5 we had decent sales, but once the number of cases started rising in July, people became afraid of going out again,” Hanney said. “We decided it was a good time to take a break, because it’s been such an emotional and financial roller coaster. I talk to a lot of restaurateurs and chefs, and everybody’s tired. It’s a good time to reexamine where we are and where we need to be in this new landscape.”
He said businesses conceived as takeout enterprises may be thriving in the current environment, but “a full-service sit-down restaurant can’t pay its bills on takeout alone.”
Hanney’s vision of “closed,” though, doesn’t mean loyal customers won’t be seeing him around. He said he envisions summertime pop-ups using 12th Ave Grill’s new outdoor seating and may invite guest chefs to participate in the events or use the space.
“I have a whole bunch of ideas and just have to pick one that seems like the smartest way to move forward.”
THE NEWLY opened Miro Kaimuki switched to takeout-only service Aug. 1.
“My sous-chef lives with his parents, and he would tell us the number of cases every day so I could see he was freaked out,” chef/co-owner Chris Kajioka said. “Staying open wasn’t worth seeing my staff feel uncomfortable.”
In light of the safety of his staff and guests, the choice was an easy one, but not without a feeling of disappointment. Kajioka had been on the verge of opening in March, when restaurants were shut down, and was relieved to finally open in June.
“I thought it was gonna be forever,” he said. “We were super busy and business-wise it was great. The COVID numbers were so low for so long, I didn’t think I would have to close again. But then, reading about cases popping up … I started to feel uncomfortable because I feel it’s everywhere. We decided to do takeout, because it seems like the cases are getting out of hand, but we have to keep working and generate some kind of revenue.”
He added, “I just want this to be over, but it seems like the longer it goes on, the less people are willing to comply with doing what’s needed to bring things back to normal.”
Takeout is available noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays.
BEING ABLE to pivot is key to restaurant survival, and at Pai Honolulu, chef-owner Kevin Lee has been trying to adapt with each bit of COVID news.
He will continue to offer dine-in service as well as outdoor seating, but Thursday he is also launching Pai at Home, a takeout menu of hot and chilled dishes, as well as items that may be prepared at home later.
Included will be an array of appetizers, sandwiches, entrees and desserts, plus pasta and pizza specials that will change weekly. Available this week are mushroom lasagna, dan dan noodles with 120-day dry-aged beef, and pan-roasted hamachi that requires a two-hour minimum notice.
“There are still people who want to go out and dine, but we’re being cautious and thought we had to do this takeout program to help diners who are choosing to stay at home,” Lee said. “As the case numbers go up, there are a lot more people who do want to eat at home or take food back to the office.”
The enhanced takeout menu also serves as a backup plan if restaurants are ordered to close dining rooms again. For now, Pai is open noon to 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.
“To see the case numbers regularly in triple digits is pretty worrisome,” Lee said. “There’s always the potential for shutting down restaurants again, which is keeping everybody on edge.”
He’s resigned to an indefinite need to close and reopen as cases rise and fall, but dreads the new problems that autumn will bring. “Once flu season starts, it’s gonna be hard to tell the difference between the two diseases.”
Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at email@example.com.