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Restaurants overwhelmed: Many struggle to find enough help to meet rising demand

As Hawaii reopens to all fully vaccinated travelers from the mainland, restaurants are struggling to find workers in preparation for an influx in tourism.

After the COVID-19 pandemic caused mass layoffs for restaurant employees, many people have not returned to jobs in the service industry.

While business owners are excited to see more people walking through their doors, many are overwhelmed due to staffing limitations.

Debbie Ching-Maiava, owner of Ken’s House of Pancakes and Ponds Hilo, has been looking for more employees while watching her current staff work continuously every day.

“I’m just so overwhelmed with everything. We don’t have enough help,” Ching-Maiava said. “We want to expand our hours, but we just can’t without more workers. My staff is running around without breaks, and I hate to see that happen.”

Ching-Maiava has had a few people apply for jobs in her restaurants, but explained that there aren’t enough people showing interest in working.

“We are extremely busy, so we want to be a little more selective in hiring, as to not add any more stress to our situation,” Ching-Maiava said. “I’m lucky to not have too much turnover and that my staff are loyal, excellent workers.”

Business at Ken’s has been getting busier as more tourists come to the Big Island and more locals feel comfortable eating out again. The restaurant is seating at half capacity, which is about 80 chairs.

Although fewer restrictions will bring more trans-Pacific tourists to the island, Ching-Maiava doesn’t have any plans to change her restaurants’ current operations.

“We want to keep welcoming people to our restaurant when more tourists come our way, even if we are busy,” Ching-Maiava said. “We’re going to just keep working hard for our customers while looking for workers when we can.”

When there weren’t enough customers ordering takeout during the pandemic, Moon and Turtle had to limit its hours and has only been open for takeout on Wednesdays and Saturdays since the fall of 2020.

“We’ve been lucky that the community has supported us through the time and have allowed us to stay in this space that we love,” said co-owner Soni Pomaski. “We’ve had mostly local traffic ordering food from us, but have noticed more visitors for the past few months.”

Moon and Turtle has been offering a smaller, constantly changing menu since the staff had to be cut down to Pomaski and her husband, Mark Pomaski. Customers also can order bottled cocktails, sauces and locally sourced spices.

Patrons are asked to visit Moon and Turtle’s social media accounts to find the menu for the day and to order food on Tuesdays and Fridays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

While offering the takeout menu twice weekly has been working during the pandemic, the Pomaskis have plans to open for dine-in service in early October.

“The environment for all restaurants has changed drastically, and we want to be as thoughtful as possible about reopening,” Soni Pomaski said. “We will also need time to get a new staff trained and ready to go.”

The Pomaskis are anxious for more tourists to visit the island in the upcoming months.

“It is exciting to see more tourists eating in Hilo since so many of us rely on them,” Soni Pomaski said. “But it’s also daunting, because we haven’t seen this in so long, and all of us have had to change to keep going.”

Hawaiian Style Café has been fortunate to have steady business, with people often waiting outside for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“We were very fortunate at the beginning of the pandemic to have a lot of support from locals that wanted takeout orders,” said manager Halen Tanimoto. “Now people are coming in for dine-in and takeout, which has made us busy all the time.”

The restaurant is staple for locals and tourists looking for quality, classic Hawaiian food.

“We’re lucky to have a good online presence that helps to bring in tourists every day,” Tanimoto said. “If more come to visit, I think that will make us busier.”

With the potential increase in tourism, Hawaiian Style Café has plans to expand the staff at both locations in Hilo and Waimea.

“When we open at 7:30 a.m., we have a line out the door, so I’m always looking for new people to join the team since we may get busier,” Tanimoto said.

Volcano village has been busier this summer as more tourists from the other islands and the mainland come to visit nearby Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

While working at the Kilauea General Store and the Lava Rock Café next door, Adele Tripp has been surprised to see a huge increase of visitors.

“In the past month, we’ve seen at least a 50% increase in visitors to the store and to the restaurant,” Tripp said. “It’s great for us on the business side, but we do have some staffing issues like everywhere else.”

After being slow throughout the summer last year, the staff at Lava Rock Café and the general store have had to change their mindsets to service more people each day.

“Sometimes, it feels like we’re burning a candle at both ends because we’re doing the best we can every day,” Tripp said. “In a lot of ways, we have to get out of first gear and rev up to give everyone great service so they’ll come back one day.”

Tripp said she has noticed more people visiting from other islands after interisland travel restrictions were eased.

“It’s nice to see that people from other islands want to support each other and see parts of the state they may not have seen before,” Tripp said.

According to Tripp, Lava Rock Café is continually looking for new hires as visitor numbers rise.

The Tuk-Tuk Thai Food Truck in Volcano also has been experiencing a gradual increase in business over two months.

“Seeing more people every day is great for our business and Hawaii’s economy, too,” Cole Manshaves said. “It’s gotten to the point where we have to change the way we purchase vegetables, and we have been selling out of things before the end of the day.”

The surge in national park visitors has caused Manshaves to see that there is untapped potential for the restaurant industry in Volcano village.

“Being right off the highway, I think Volcano needs more business, whether it be another food truck or restaurant,” Manshaves said. “Visitors enjoy coming to the national park, and locals in Ka‘u would benefit from more food options in town.”

Fully vaccinated tourists from the mainland, Alaska and the U.S. territories can now bypass testing requirements and quarantines as long as they have proof of their vaccinations.

Children ages 5 to 11 still have to take a COVID-19 pretest to sidestep quarantine, because vaccinations are only being administered to those 12 years and older.

Masks are still required at indoor venues at all times.

More information on travel can be found at https://coronavirus-response-county-of-hawaii-hawaiicountygis.hub.arcgis.com/pages/travel.

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

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