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Small business owners in Kaimuki welcome grant, but say they need more to stay afloat

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                 Summer Shiigi, owner of Ten Tomorrow clothing boutique, arranged new items inside the Kaimuki store on Friday.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Summer Shiigi, owner of Ten Tomorrow clothing boutique, arranged new items inside the Kaimuki store on Friday.

For 25 years, Coffee Talk in Kaimuki has been a neighborhood fixture, a place to get coffee or lunch and to meet with others.

Although it is still open for takeout, the volume of customers has slowed to a trickle, to only 20% of what it used to be prior to pandemic-related restrictions, according to owner Liz Schwartz.

The streets of Kaimuki’s commercial core nowadays are eerily quiet, and there is no lunchtime, evening or weekend crowd.

>> PHOTOS: Businesses continue to struggle in Kaimuki

“I think everyone is equally disrupted by this, but it is very scary when you’ve been open for 25 years and you feel this impending doom,” Schwartz said. “It’s also really scary to have no end in sight.”

She, along with many others in the neighborhood, will be applying for a second round of grants that recently became available for small businesses. But Schwartz fears it won’t be enough.

On Thursday, Mayor Kirk Caldwell announced an additional $75 million would be available for the city’s Small Business Relief and Recovery Fund, which distributes money in the form of reimbursement grants that do not need to be repaid.

A broader range of businesses can now qualify for the grants, and those that previously applied can apply for another round.

Businesses with up to $2 million in annual revenue can start applying Monday, while those with $2 million to $5 million in revenue can start applying Oct. 1.

Retail and food service businesses, along with accommodations, arts and entertainment, have been among those taking the brunt of pandemic-related restrictions, according to a recent survey by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

All but a quarter of Hawaii businesses have had to make staff cuts and reductions, UHERO found, and roughly a third anticipated deeper cuts in the coming months.

Many longtime businesses in Kaimuki, which is made up of mostly small, independent retailers serving residents, have been particularly hard hit.

Jimmy Chun, owner of Korean restaurant Kim Chee II on Waialae Avenue, said he has never experienced a slump like this in the 43 years he has been at the location.

“We’re going to do all things possible so we can stay alive,” he said. “But it’s been tough.”

He is still able to offer takeout, but the regulars who liked to dine in no longer visit.

“It’s better than nothing,” he said. “It’s like having two incomes, the takeout and the dining in, but you take one income away and the other is not going to fulfill it all the way. Not being able to have people eat here really hurts us … and I miss talking to my customers.”

Without the same levels of revenue, Chun said he had to let a few employees go.

Just around the corner, the Pillbox Pharmacy, an independent pharmacy for 46 years, is expected to close its doors in November.

Ten Tomorrow, a fashion boutique on 11th Avenue, is a relative newcomer, having been there for three years. The store, which sells modern resortwear along with locally made jewelry, remains shuttered under the current order prohibiting “nonessential” retail operations.

Owner Summer Shiigi said she pivoted to online sales, held virtual trunk shows and generated some revenue by selling face masks.

Shiigi applied for and received the first grant of $10,000 but said it covered only about one month’s worth of rent and utilities. She plans to apply for a second round in the same amount.

“I’m grateful for any and all help,” she said. “It’s definitely a welcome relief.”

She is worried, however, about what the future holds, particularly for the holiday season.

The second lockdown has been rougher than the first, according to Otto McDonough, owner of Otto Cake on 12th Avenue, which sells cheesecakes and other sweets.

“We’re much slower than with the first one,” he said. “I used to be able to pay all my bills and now I can barely pay them.”

Even though his tiny bake shop is open, customers are staying home and there is no longer an after-work crowd coming by to buy cakes. One day, he made $3 in brownie sales and that was it.

McDonough said he was not able to get the first round of grants and is hoping he will be able to this time.

Many small business owners say they are going to need more help to get through the pandemic.

Easing restrictions and allowing them to reopen would help, but so would other forms of assistance, especially with rent, their largest fixed cost.

The Kaimuki Business and Professional Association said the expansion of the city grant is a much-needed lifeline, but it only goes so far if tenants need to pay 100% of their rent.

Schwartz loves Kaimuki because of its mom-and-pop shops and unique character.

“It’s a really tight community and we all support each other,” she said.

Unless customers support local businesses, however, many will no longer exist, she said, giving way to corporate restaurant chains and big box stores.

But she has not given up yet.

“I’m just going with blind faith,” she said, “and just continuing to be positive every day and hope for the best, but it’s scary.”

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