Popular Hilo eateries begin laying off employees

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald A customer enters Hilo Town Tavern on Wednesday. The popular Hilo watering hole and entertainment venue remains open, according to owner Issa Hilweh.

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Shoppers browse the produce section of Hilo Farmers Market Wednesday. The market continues to operate, with reduced hours, according to owner Keith De La Cruz. Makuu Farmers Market in Puna has closed until further notice because of COVID-19 concerns.

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Ken’s House of Pancakes, Hilo’s only 24/7 diner remains open for business, as does sister restaurant Pond’s Hilo, according to owner Debra Ching-Maiava.

  • JOHN BURNETT/Tribune-Herald Hilo Burger Joint, seen Wednesday, has closed its dining room and moved to a takeout/Express Waiters delivery business model, which also includes growlers of draft beer for delivery to those of legal drinking age, according to owner Rhonda Nichols.

Some East Hawaii restaurants are following Gov. David Ige’s Tuesday recommendation to move to a takeout/delivery service model during the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis, while other eateries are choosing to continue their dining room operations.

The governor’s guidelines, announced Tuesday, also include a request for bars and clubs to shut down. Those recommendations, however, don’t have the force of law.

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In addition, Mayor Harry Kim on Tuesday said the Big Island’s “restaurants, bars and places of worship may make their own decision as to open or close.”

Kim said he wants those establishments, however, to address how they’ll minimize risks to their customers.

That has some local restaurateurs, such as Hilo Burger Joint owner Rhonda Nichols, concerned about “mixed messages” and a “lack of political leadership.”

Nichols moved Wednesday to a takeout and delivery model at her popular midtown establishment. She does have growler service for draft beer, however, and said they can be delivered through Express Waiters.

“Could I open to the public today if I wanted to?” Nichols said. “Yes, but I’m choosing not to.”

Nichols said Wednesday that she made what she called a “tough decision” to lay off 20 employees and keep a skeleton crew of two employees in the kitchen and another to answer the phone.

“I told all of my employees (Tuesday) night to go to unemployment today,” Nichols said. The state canceled its one-week waiting period for laid-off employees to collect unemployment insurance.

“I’m not afraid of the virus. I’m afraid of how many people are going to be hurt, how many children are going to go hungry and how poorly prepared we are to deal with this as a country and as a community,” Nichols said.

Pam Owens, co-owner of Pineapples restaurant in downtown Hilo, also criticized the state’s messaging toward restaurants, saying Ige’s address Tuesday and Mayor Kim’s statements sent mixed messages about what restaurants should be doing.

“After 4 p.m. today, we’ll be stopping our dine-in service and will only do curbside takeout,” she said Wednesday.

According to Owens, 54 employees were laid off Wednesday, leaving only 10 essential staff.

“We’re mourning the loss of our great employees right now,” Owens said.

Chuck Koesters, general manager of Hilo Yacht Club, said messages from the state, CDC and other agencies have been “confused at best.” However, he said the private club is doing its best to comply by limiting the number of people dining in at once, conducting frequent and thorough sterilizations and encouraging members to order food to go.

Koesters said the club will help employees who are unable to go to work — whether to care for children or elderly relatives or because they are sick themselves or simply feel unsafe — to secure unemployment benefits. So far, four employees have stopped working at the club, he said.

Debra Ching-Maiava, owner of Ken’s House of Pancakes and Ponds Hilo, said she’s staying open for now, per the mayor’s message allowing her to use her own discretion.

“That meant a lot to me and the other restaurateurs I spoke to yesterday,” Ching-Maiava said. “I’m asking my employees, ‘Do you want to work? If you don’t that’s OK.’ And leaving the doors to people who want to come in.”

Ching-Maiava said that as of Wednesday, she hadn’t laid off any staff, but would likely need to “because business is slower and fewer staff will be needed.”

She said extra emphasis has been put on sanitizing any surfaces that have been touched, and she tells employees, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.”

“The people who have been coming here have been happy; they’ve been comfortable,” she said. “Dining, sometimes, can be therapeutic, and people go to restaurants for calming down and being pampered.”

At Kilauea Lodge in Volcano, General Manager Janet Coney said the restaurant will close its dining room for 15 days, but will provide takeout and possibly deliveries in the Volcano area.

“We’re hoping to not have to lay anybody off, but we haven’t heard about what to do from corporate yet,” Coney said.

Coney said the lodge’s bed-and-breakfast operation has been beset by cancellations, with only a handful of guests booked for the next several weeks.

“I think once we get over this hurdle, we can bounce back,” Coney said. “We had another crisis two years ago, and we got over that.”

Soni and Mark Pomaski, owners of Moon and Turtle in downtown Hilo, have laid most of their workers off.

“It’s a very emotional time for us,” Mark Pomaski said.

The Pomaskis said they’ve kept one employee on and are attempting to transition to a takeout-only restaurant.

“We’re being asked to change our entire business model,” Mark Pomaski said. “We’re a full-service restaurant; we’re not a takeout restaurant. Our menu isn’t designed for that.”

Soni Pomaski said the state needs to take stronger actions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, but also needs to provide more support for the restaurant industry, which has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

“The restaurant business is like treading water,” Mark Pomaski said. “We tread water all the time just to keep our heads above water. They tell us to just stop treading water for two weeks, but we can’t do that. If we stop treading water, we drown.

“… I just wish that there was a plan in place letting us know we’re going to be okay.”

Hilo Town Tavern, a bar and entertainment venue that also serves food, remains open.

“We have taken many steps; we have canceled and postponed our larger shows,” said Issa Hilweh, the watering hole’s owner. He added that his workers sanitize menus and table condiments between guests at each table, and the bathrooms are cleaned hourly.

Hilweh said he’s seen a 20% dropoff in business and has cut hours of some staff and reduced hours the kitchen is open.

“I’m sure it will get worse before it gets better. Just want everyone to be safe and aware,” he said. “… I just hope we can stay steady and take care of our team.”

Hilo Farmers Market remains open, while Makuu Farmers Market, a popular Sunday-only market near Pahoa, is closing until further notice.

The iconic Hilo market will operate under reduced hours, listed on its website at hilofarmersmarket.com.

Hilo Farmers Market owner Keith De La Cruz said vendors and employees “are cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces” and attempting to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s social distancing guidelines of 6 feet between people.

De La Cruz called his market, as an agricultural purveyor, “part of our government’s critical infrastructure sector.”

“We will continue to provide an affordable option to our food supply chain,” he said.

Laua‘e Kekahuna, a manager at Makuu Farmers Market, said she and her organization “are trying to keep up on news of the coronavirus and use our best judgment.” The market notified the public of its closure Tuesday on its Facebook page.

“People from all over the world come to our market,” Kekahuna said. “To do our part to slow the spread of coronavirus is our goal.”

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Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

Email Michael Brestovansky@mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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