Restaurant owners in Hilo are struggling to stay positive while changing the way they are operating during the COVID-19 outbreak.
After Gov. David Ige issued a stay-at-home order beginning March 25, which closed all nonessential businesses and urged Hawaii residents to stay home until at least April 30, restaurants throughout East Hawaii have either shut down or continued with takeout, curbside pickup or delivery options.
“It’s looking pretty grim,” said Don Hoota, owner of Don’s Grill. “We laid off all our dining room staff and are doing takeout only just to get by.”
Although business is suffering, Hoota finds himself fortunate because he is relying on mostly local patrons looking for takeout food.
“It’s hard to know what’s going to happen. I haven’t even seen the bills for this month yet,” Hoota said. “We’re all in the same boat, just holding on to see where it takes us.”
Many restaurants are facing similar challenges during the stay-at-home order and are striving to find temporary solutions until they can return to normal operations.
Food-A-Go-Go, an online resource, is helping local restaurants by listing all of those statewide that are providing takeout, delivery or curbside pickup for customers. The service, created by the Hawaii Agricultural Foundation and Hawaii Food &Wine Festival, can be found at https://foodagogo.org/.
Before the stay-at-home order, Cronies Bar and Grill created its own online ordering system with online payment and curbside pickup, which is helping it stay afloat as long as possible.
“Business has been slow, but OK, with loyal customers who have come by,” said manager Nathan Smith. “The owner is committed to stay open until we literally cannot.”
Since no one can dine in, Smith and the two other employees have been giving a roll of toilet paper from the restaurant with every pick-up order.
“We can’t use it, so we thought we might as well help the people that help us,” Smith said.
However, without in-person dining, Cronies was forced to lay off 90%-95% of its staff, mostly consisting of servers and bartenders.
“People can’t come in and sit at the bar for a drink anymore, and that is really hurting us,” Smith said. “It was so hard to let go of so many people that need jobs right now.”
Cronies’ story is not unique. Cafe 100 closed all together, causing owner Mari Leung to lay off all the staff.
“Even with all the safety precautions we were taking, I felt that it was best to shut down for now,” Leung said. “Everyone was understanding, but it was so hard to let my family go.”
Leung plans to take the time to examine operations during the closure to better prepare for the future.
“Economically, it’s a messed up time with so much unknown for everyone,” Leung said. “With this, we want to reopen as quickly as we can to help feed the community.”
Genki Sushi at the Prince Kuhio Plaza laid off nearly half its staff, but last week was continuing operations through takeout and curbside pickup, although it has been slow most days, an employee said.
With help from landlords, Devan Aburamen, owner of Blane’s Drive Inn, has been able to keep his employees despite being down in sales, he said last week.
“We’re down 50% in sales, which is unforeseen,” Aburamen said. “But our landlord has given us a lot of leniency and has told us we’re in this together.”
Takeout orders are keeping Blane’s going so far, but Aburamen is hoping small business loan forgiveness can save his business and employees.
“Everything is uncertain, but I want to stay open for first responders and the people that need us,” Aburamen said. “These aren’t easy decisions, and it’s understandable that some places would decide to close right now.”
While keeping Blane’s and his other business, Manono Mini Mart, open through the stay-at-home order, Aburamen said he has been confused by the message from politicians.
“It was always very unclear what an essential business is,” Aburamen said. “If this isn’t a full shutdown, I’m wondering — what is the point?”
Although Aburamen finds the message ambiguous, he hopes businesses can learn from the crisis and continue to work together.
“I think this is going to be a big reset of how business is done in Hilo,” Aburamen said. “We have been persevering through this as a community, and I hope that attitude is long-lasting.”
Sombat Sangutsai is used to change. A year ago, Sombat Thai Kitchen closed for lunch after 14 years. Since the governor’s stay-at-home order, Sangutsai changed her hours and is offering takeout from 4-8 p.m. every day.
“This has been hurting us, but you have to keep going,” Sangutsai said. “We have a lot of regulars that have been coming and have helped us every day.”
Despite closures, the loss of business and reduced staff, some restaurant owners are keeping their heads high despite the uncertainty of what comes next.
“Now our community has time to look inward and learn who we are,” Sangutsai said. “We have no choice but to live with this, so we have to live as happily as we can.”
Email Kelsey Walling at firstname.lastname@example.org.