Hopeful in Honokaa: Businesses struggle with lack of visitors, eye Oct. 15 reopening

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Cathy Parrens shows Liz Kelly a new bowl at Kelly's store, Topstitch, in Honokaa earlier this month. Kelly is closing her store at the end of the month.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Kiki Isabel hands a customer ice cream wrapped in a homemade waffle with toppings at Wifey's Waffles in Honokaa.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Cynthia Worrell closes a display case recently at Honokaa Treasure Mall. Worrell's sales are down by at least 75%.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Carol Ignacio stands outside her breakfast and brunch restaurant, Gramma's Kitchen, in Honokaa recently. Ignacio misses the bustle of tourists that she's used to seeing in town.

Businesses in Honokaa continue to struggle with a lack of tourism caused by COVID-19 restrictions.

A mandatory 14-day quarantine for trans-Pacific travelers has all but eliminated out-of-state visitors to the former plantation town, and many business owners wonder how long they can hang on.

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As she looked down the empty sidewalks earlier this month, Carol Ignacio, owner of Gramma’s Kitchen, remembered the palpable excitement that visitors would bring to Honokaa.

“Before the pandemic, we had people lining up out the door, especially on the weekends,” Ignacio said. “The truth is, we need tourists to survive, but I understand there are two sides of the coin.”

Honokaa serves as a corridor to Waipio Valley and its lookout, which is one of the most-visited spots for tourism on the Big Island.

Before the pandemic, it was common to see tourists walking around Honokaa looking for lunch, browsing stores and stopping for ice cream before or after visiting the valley.

Normally, 60% of business at Gramma’s Kitchen comes from tourists, with the rest stemming from locals. Although the breakfast restaurant is still a favorite among residents, sales are down about 70%.

“The support we’re getting from locals — we couldn’t ask for more,” Ignacio said. “But this is a situation where some people aren’t working, so we are really skimming by. It’s been tough.”

To help keep her business afloat during the pandemic, Ignacio has been doing things a little differently at Gramma’s Kitchen. Staff have been utilizing social media more to interact with customers, and the restaurant has started offering online ordering, curbside pickup and prepay options.

“We started doing these new things, because I’m not a quitter, and this is helping us survive,” Ignacio said. “We were used to doing business a certain way, and now we have new tools that we would not have without the pandemic.”

Ignacio plans to continue running her business similarly after things return to normal.

“I try to thank every customer that comes in, and I don’t want that to change,” Ignacio said. “I always want to ensure that our gratefulness to the community never changes.”

Paauilo resident Randy Ruff ordered and waited for his takeout breakfast outside Gramma’s on a recent morning.

“I love this place, I come here for breakfast all the time,” Ruff said. “This is a people-oriented town filled with small businesses, and I hope it can stay that way through this time.”

Cynthia Worrell owns Honokaa Treasure Mall and has been living off savings since reopening during the pandemic.

Although locals have been coming to the store to shop, it hasn’t been enough to make up for the lack of tourism.

“We are down in sales about 75%,” Worrell said. “Locals come into the store to look for housewares and small things, but some people are out of work and can’t spend money right now.”

The shop has survived on the Big Island for 13 years. The store is full of items that prove useful to residents and tourists alike.

“I think a lot of people come to shop as a form of therapy,” Worrell said. “We have inexpensive things that people enjoy buying and housewares that are popular with locals.”

To help a local business next door, the Treasure Mall will be absorbing Topstitch, a fabric and quilt shop, next month.

Although sad to be closing her shop on Sept. 30, owner Liz Kelly thinks the move will be lucrative for herself and Worrell.

“It kind of happened on a whim,” Kelly said. “My lease was up, and without tourism I could not see myself going on much longer.”

On Sept. 16, Gov. David Ige announced the Oct. 15 start of the often-delayed COVID-19 testing program, which will allow airline passengers to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine if they test negative for the coronavirus within 72 hours of arriving in Hawaii.

“I would be ecstatic if tourists are able to visit again — as long as it remains safe, of course,” Worrell said. “I would feel saved if that happened.”

While many small businesses in Honokaa continue to struggle, a new shop has been quite busy in its first few days.

Wifey’s Waffles, which was originally a food truck, is a dessert shop that serves ice cream inside of homemade waffles.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, Hala‘ikai and Shannrae Kumai-Patterson were laid off their jobs and were scrambling to find a way to provide for their seven-person household.

“My wife and I just decided to do something that we’ve wanted to try when we couldn’t get unemployment right away,” Hala‘ikai Kumai-Patterson said. “So we got a food trailer and twice a week set up to serve dessert around the island.”

After gaining a following on social media and seeing the success of their business, the Kumai-Pattersons decided to put down roots in Honokaa on Aug. 1 and officially opened Wifey’s Waffles on Sept. 7.

“We renovated everything ourselves in about a month,” Kumai-Patterson said. “We wanted to be in an accessible area where everyone could come visit, and Honokaa seemed perfect.”

The first week of business proved successful for the family-owned shop when many Big Island residents traveled to Honokaa to try Wifey’s Waffles at its permanent location.

“The space was available, and being in one location provides us more freedom to do what we want,” Hala‘ikai said. “We’re still trying to find our rhythm, but we’re stoked with the support we’ve seen the past two days,” he said in early September.

Although it was a risk to start a business during a pandemic, the Kumai-Pattersons have been excited about its success and look forward to their future in Honokaa.

“We love this community and feel fortunate to be able to do this,” Hala‘ikai said. “Wifey’s Waffles saved us during COVID, and if we didn’t do this, I don’t know where we’d be.”

Across the street at Fudge’n Coffee, owner Nini Leslie did not have as much traffic.

“I’m barely making it right now, “ Leslie said. “Locals are doing everything they can to keep me open, but I still need people.”

To help bring in customers on the weekends, Leslie has been hosting a Saturday night dinner every week.

“We used to do it once a month, but I’ve expanded it to once a week,” Leslie said. “We always have dedicated customers that come every weekend, and that does help.”

Although Leslie isn’t sure opening for tourists from the mainland is a good idea, she thinks the state could benefit from easing the interisland 14-day quarantine mandate.

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“I think opening for interisland travel would be a good first step,” Leslie said. “Some people are ready to travel around the state again, and that alone would be helpful.”

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com

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