It took a leap of faith to remain in business throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, says Liz Schwartz, owner of Coffee Talk in Kaimuki.
The past year has been a blur, but she remembers the struggles of surviving two shutdowns, when her independent coffee shop at 12th and Waialae avenues sat empty due to restrictions, followed by a slow reopening — and now a feeling of hope.
“I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
On a recent weekday the cafe of more than 25 years was bustling, with customers occupying every table and a line in front of the cash register.
It took about six months after the second shutdown for people to feel comfortable coming back in again, she said. The largest challenge has been keeping up with the rent for her 3,600- square-foot space.
As soon as she could reopen, she had a glass case installed in front, plus custom-made Plexiglas barriers on wheels that can be rolled between tables. She attributes her survival to the support of a loyal neighborhood.
Fortunately, she was able to keep approximately 20 employees, some of whom have worked for her for years.
“Kaimuki is so awesome, and this neighborhood is so loyal and supporting,” she said, “and they’re continuing to do so. I’m grateful that we made it through. We’re hanging in there.”
Melissa Bow, owner of Via Gelato, also credited loyal customers in the neighborhood for helping her business survive.
She said foot traffic has picked up in the neighborhood and that there is a lighter mood overall. On Memorial Day weekend Via Gelato began offering dine-in seating, which was a milestone.
“More and more people are coming out,” she said.
She said she witnessed a return following various waves of COVID-19 vaccinations, with more kupuna coming out first, followed by younger customers. Her shop has pivoted to offering gelato cakes, which have proved to be a hit as people are once again gathering to celebrate.
Schwartz is pivoting by applying for a liquor license, with plans to offer craft cocktails on Fridays and Saturdays as another source of revenue.
Just around the corner and down the street, however, others have not been so lucky.
The 12th Avenue space for Gecko Books & Comics, a mainstay in the community for more than 30 years, still remains empty after closing in October.
Some graffiti marks the windows, and inside, the space remains dark and empty. A sign from Sofos Realty Corp. says the space is still available.
Otto McDonough of Otto Cake, which sells cheesecakes and other desserts on 12th Avenue, says he was never able to qualify for the city’s small-business relief grants others received, and still does not know why.
After struggling through slow sales, he got a good bump during the holidays, and business is picking up slightly now. He is also relieved to be fully vaccinated, which gives him hope.
“I’m going to stick it out,” he said.
Along the main stretch of Waialae Avenue, empty storefronts tell the story of the pandemic’s impact and slow recovery.
Top of the Hill, a popular bar, is now closed, as is a Japanese restaurant, Kikue, at 3579 Waialae Ave. On Instagram, Kikue said it could not work out negotiations with the landlord, which led it to close March 31.
The former space for Vegan Hill, which closed, was briefly occupied by a Mexican eatery but is now papered over again and appears to have a new tenant moving in.
Other casualties of the pandemic include Town, Chef Ed Kenny’s signature restaurant, which closed in November; the Pillbox Pharmacy, which closed in November after 46 years in business; and Collector Maniacs, a comic book and collectibles store at 3571 Waialae Ave., after more than 20 years.
In its place is a new boutique called Keep It Simple, a zero-waste store selling reusable straws, bags and other items.
The former Pillbox Pharmacy space on 11th Avenue also remains empty, the signs for the former occupant now gone.
“You see people moving in and trying,” said Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii, whose office is in the neighborhood. “If you don’t do your homework, it’s a struggle. You need to know who your customers are and what they’re looking for.”
Many landlords are now offering shorter-term leases of three to five years, but even then, spaces have yet to be filled.
Some shops have reduced their hours. Stir, a yogurt shop, posted a sign saying it would temporarily close in April but reopen in July.
By the historic Queen Theater, the space formerly occupied by Surf N Hula, a vintage shop that also closed last year, appears to be storefronts for a nail salon and pawnshop. They were built as part of a set for CBS’ “Magnum P.I.,” according to Yamaki, and are not actual businesses.
Although Oahu has now reached Tier 4, restrictions have eased and more people are venturing out, it will take time for this neighborhood’s small businesses to return to normal, she said.
Tourists also gave businesses in Kaimuki a boost, according to Yamaki. Trolleys used to drop off Japanese visitors in the neighborhood to shop and dine, but they might not return for some time.
Paying for rent remains one of the largest expenses for a small business, she said, with many still owing back rent ranging from six months to a year, and each needing to negotiate terms with their landlords.
During the shutdowns, they still had to pay rent, utilities and taxes, which resulted in debt accumulation. Also, consumers are not necessarily spending as much as they were before the pandemic.
“Some are only making 30% of what they did prior,” she said. “It’s a catch-up game.”
Schwartz said looking back, the support of neighborhood regulars got her through the toughest times.
“It’s just been so amazing,” she said, “and my amazing employees who stuck through all of it. I’m so grateful for them.”
After what she has been through, however, she is still bracing for the unexpected. The year 2019, after all, was a great year, and then the pandemic hit.
“You think you’re OK, and then you’re not and you go on blind faith, which is basically what I did,” she said. “In my gut I felt like we’ve got to stick it out, and I’m glad we did but you never know what’s going to happen.”