Denby Fawcett: I'm Still Too Wary Of COVID-19 To Rush Out To Eat - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

One of my great pleasures used to be sampling new restaurants such as Senia in Chinatown or Broken Rice in Kaimuki as soon as they opened. But not now.

When restaurants resume dine-in service June 5, I will not be among those rushing to sit in any enclosed dining room even if the tables are spaced 6 feet apart.

About the only kind of eateries I’m interested in now are places with ample outdoor dining or maybe a cafe in a park where there is plenty of fresh air and room to spread out on the grass.

My avoidance is out of a lingering concern prompted by health officials’ persistent warnings that the virus is still lurking, poised for a second attack. I don’t want to take any chances.

The Beet Box Cafe in Haleiwa has been doing takeout orders due to the coronavirus. It would be allowed to open for sit-down dining June 5 under new guidelines issued by the City and County of Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

At the same time, I am worried about the future of restaurants owned by people I admire and their hardworking employees, now laid off in Hawaii in total numbers estimated by the National Restaurant Association to be as high at 53,000.

I want to help but I am uncertain that my meager takeout orders are enough to stem the misery.

This has been a horrible time for Hawaii restaurants, and for many establishments it is unlikely to get better soon.

On May 5, management informed employees at the Top of Waikiki that the restaurant was closing after 55 years of business. The jobs there were gone for good.

“It’s a sad day,” said Leighton Mau, restaurant owner and president and CEO of the Waikiki Business Plaza and Waikiki Shopping Plaza.

I remember so many enjoyable evenings watching the ever-changing views of Waikiki’s night sky from the 20th floor revolving restaurant while eating specialties by former executive chef Sean Priester, such as Kobe beef served on black river rocks.

The restaurant started by Leighton’s father, the late Bill Mau, in the family owned Waikiki Business Plaza has weathered many challenges but Leighton determined the current uncertainty is too daunting to survive.

“Tourists made up 80% of our business and the return of tourism does not look good for the near term,” he said.

On top of that, there is the state Department of Health requirement that restaurants must operate at no more than 50% of their total seating capacity.

The venerable landmark dining establishment, Top of Waikiki, has been closed along with all other sit-down restaurants because customers have been shut out due to worries over COVID-19. Its owner says it will not reopen. Courtesy of Leighton Mau

“If we are 100%, we can make money, but with only 50% of our customers, you can’t make money. You can only bleed for so long,” said Mau.

He said he locked the doors of the Top of Waikiki, leaving everything in place for it to reopen someday in the future by someone who sees a good opportunity — but he says it won’t be him.

It is not just large, fancy restaurants like the Top of Waikiki that have suffered during the virus outbreak.

Liz Schwartz, who has operated Coffee Talk in Kaimuki for 25 years, says the closure of restaurant dine-in service imposed by the governor on March 23 left her paying monthly rent on her 3,600 square feet of retail space when she could use only 200 square feet for take out coffee and food orders.

Now that her dine-in service is about to resume, the problem remains.

“I am paying for a lot of square footage and can use only half of it. That is difficult. I don’t know how it is going to work. If I can put tables outside, that will help. I am trying to stay as positive as I can but I am wondering how to survive with the new limitations.”

Schwartz has spent $3,000 on 10 Plexiglas dividers to put between the tables.

“I will keep the tables the required 6 feet apart but the dividers are to give customers an additional feeling of safety.”

Coffee Talk employees Fiona Miranda and Hayley Unterreiner take a break at one of the new partitioned off tables. Courtesy of Liz Schwartz

Sakara Blackwell, who owns the Barefoot Beach Café in Kapiolani Park, says even with tables 6 feet apart, if her customers still feel wary they can bring their own beach chairs and take their meals out on the grass. She will also offer face masks to customers who forget to bring them.

Being situated in a park gives her advantages that most other restaurants lack.

Nathan Fong is the head of the retail division of Colliers International. In his 20 years in the commercial real estate business he has helped many restaurants find locations to get started.

The 43-year-old has no qualms about returning to enclosed dine-in restaurants.

“After being cooped up for two months, I want to go out. I want to have lunch or dinner with my friends and clients,” he says.

But he adds, “It is going to be a new world on the other side of this. Attention to safety factors will be the new norm of how we live our lives.”

He thinks casual restaurants with reasonable prices are the establishments most likely to do well, even thrive. It will be more difficult for high end, sit down restaurants, especially in the tourist district.

“We are going to see a lot less restaurants in the future. That can’t be helped,” Fong says. “But restaurants with new concepts will be emerging, restaurants that have figured out how to adapt. Never underestimate human creativity and the ability to adapt.”

He says useful adaptations would include meal delivery service, curbside pickup, customer loyalty programs, special holiday menu offerings and off-site catering.

Even though I am not returning to enclosed restaurants, I hope the city will make it easier for restaurants to have more outdoor sidewalk service, a feature the state health department should have encouraged long ago to take advantage of Hawaii’s warm, favorable climate.

Outdoor meals are safer and nicer and they make us feel alive.

Read this next:

How The Hawaii Legislature Helped The People Of Hawaii

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Why cant we have MORE OUTDOOR DINING? Take back the sidewalks Honolulu!

Sayitaintso · 11 months ago

In the meantime leave a nice tip when you takeout.

RoyK · 11 months ago

I always try to eat local.  The difficulty for these restaurants will be profitability.  I'm no restaurant owner but I do know econ.  If the restaurants have to keep patrons a safe distance apart, they may never be able to survive.  A small restaurant that can sit 30 max may only be able to sit 10 safely distanced apart.  I feel for the industry and I hope everyone goes out to support them when they can or we'll end up losing a lot of great Mom & Pop restaurants.  If we can't sit, take it to the beach and watch the sunset. 

againstdagrain808 · 11 months ago

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