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Hanging on: Restaurants struggle to survive as pandemic worsens

As the COVID-19 crisis drags on, some East Hawaii restaurant owners worry about the survival of their businesses.

While many restaurants have closed or curtailed services during the surge of infections on the Big Island, other eateries are continuing regular service with more vigilance about the safety of their operations.

Café 100 owner Mari Leung decided to keep the restaurant closed at the beginning of the initial stay-at-home order in March to examine operations and find the best way to safely reopen.

The restaurant slowly increased its hours and is now operating 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. The tables outside the kitchen remain closed to the public, however.

“We have been following strict protocols in the kitchen since reopening,” Leung said. “The team has been working together to make sure everyone is as safe as possible coming to work every day.”

Although Leung feels comfortable opening with longer hours, she is concerned about the growing number of virus cases in Hilo.

“I think the county could be doing a better job of checking on businesses to make sure they are complying with the rules,” Leung said. “It’s scary that Hilo cases just keep rising.”

On Aug, 18, Gov. David Ige extended the 14-day quarantine for arriving passengers in Hawaii until Oct. 1 to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. That has all but eliminated tourism.

“Operating without tourism has made a major impact on so many restaurants,” Leung said. “We’re walking a thin line, and sales are down, but we are thankful to the locals that keep coming and supporting us.”

Although tourism would greatly help her business, Leung said continuing the 14-day quarantine is best for the community’s health.

“For the sake of everyone, I am glad we don’t have visitors right now,” Leung said. “This is a balancing act, because if we got even more cases from visitors and had to close, then I don’t know how we’d reopen.”

And if the impact from COVID-19 wasn’t difficult enough, restaurants also are concerned about a recent Young Brothers rate increase of 46%.

On Aug, 17, the Public Utilities approved Young Brothers’ emergency request to increase rates to keep the company afloat.

“Now that Young Brothers announced they will be raising prices, I am worried about what I’ll be able to afford,” Leung said. “No matter what happens, our goal is to provide affordable, good food to our customers, and we will continue to do that as long as we can.”

Richard Galligos, owner of Vibe Café, also is worried about the Young Brothers’ rate increase and how it will affect Hilo’s restaurants.

“This could really affect all restaurants that are already struggling,” Galligos said. “It’s a challenging time, and adding more cost to our operations is only going to hurt.”

Vibe Café is a vegetarian and vegan restaurant, with food and coffee grown locally. Galligos reopened on Mother’s Day and has experienced an uptick in business over time.

“At first it was really slow, and we were only doing takeout,” Galligos said. “Luckily, we have more people coming in to get coffee with a friend or sit outside when it’s nice.”

Galligos is not worried about the extension of the 14-day quarantine for out-of-state travelers, because mostly Big Island residents frequent the café.

“We’re lucky that mostly locals come to the restaurant,” Galligos said. “We love these people and are so grateful that they are keeping us alive.”

Casey Yundt at Pele’s Kitchen is having a harder time surviving the pandemic since reopening in Pahoa Village.

“This is about how we’re doing,” Yundt said while gesturing to the mostly empty restaurant.

Yundt took over the breakfast-only restaurant last December and decided to “go all in” by renovating the space, making sure the menu contains fresh, local ingredients, and hiring 14 employees.

“The first three months were incredible for us,” Yundt said. “We were doing so well, and then everything just fell off all at once.”

Yundt laid off his employees when the first stay-at-home order went into effect. He only has been able to bring one person back on a full-time basis.

“I’m in the front, and he’s in the back, because that’s all I can handle at the moment,” Yundt said. “Sometimes, I’m here from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. to clean and make sure we’re ready for the next day.”

Yundt has been able to stay open with the help of the Small Business Administration Payroll Protection Program loan under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

“The PPP loan helps, but isn’t always enough, especially since a gallon of sanitizer is $80 now, if you can even find it,” Yundt said. “Prices on everything like to-go boxes, cups and dry products just keep increasing, and we can hardly keep up.”

To make matters worse, tables, chairs and a pavilion recently were stolen from the restaurant’s outdoor seating area, which caused more stress for Yundt.

“I guess they needed it more than me,” Yundt joked. “It was very disappointing since that increased my seating space and was also really nice for customers.”

Parts of Puna rely on tourists and have been missing out on the revenue that comes from visitors. Restaurants, art galleries and shops that usually do well are struggling to survive. However, Yundt is cautious about the eventual return of tourists.

“Visitors could save us, but only if they don’t inundate us with virus cases,” Yundt said. “If we had another shut down, then having visitors would kill so many of our businesses.”

Although its future is unknown, Pele’s Kitchen will remain open for the community and continue persevering through the pandemic for as long as possible, Yundt said.

Meanwhile, Hilo restaurant Moon and Turtle has been offering takeout meals since it reopened in April. While some days are busy, others have proven to be quite slow.

“Business has been all over the place,” owner Soni Pomafki said. “Some days are much better than others, and there isn’t a rhyme or reason to it.”

Moon and Turtle was a popular restaurant for visitors during its seven years of business. Although she understands the necessity for the 14-day quarantine, the lack of tourism has hurt, Pomafki said.

“Without visitors, it has been a struggle,” Pomafki said. “We’re in a bind, and I’m not sure what the future holds.”

Pomafki also is worried about the impact the loss of business will have on the people who rely on the restaurant for employment.

Five employees have been working through the pandemic, but Pomafki is not anticipating bringing more workers back anytime soon.

“I think most restaurants are asking the same questions and pondering the future right now,” Pomafki said. “What the pandemic has taught me is the importance of thinking on our feet and reimagining the answers to our problems.”

Email Kelsey Walling at kwalling@hawaiitribune-herald.com
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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