Cheeseburger in Paradise was a top revenue producer for Maui for decades but its owners have decided not to try to reopen. Other firms are making the same decision.

For more than 30 years, Cheeseburger in Paradise, founded in Lahaina, occupied a prime waterfront spot on the town’s Front Street.

The iconic eatery drew hordes of tourists and locals, serving up to 1,200 people a day, employing a staff of about 50 people and generating more than $7.5 million a year in revenue.

On the restaurant’s Facebook page, repeat visitors to Maui called it their first stop on the island each time they visited.

Cheeseburger in Paradise stood on Front Street in Lahaina for 35 years
Lahaina was the founding location for the popular Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant, which burned to the ground on Aug. 8. (Courtesy Cheeseburger in Paradise)

But the Aug. 8 Lahaina fire destroyed the restaurant. And amid an uncertain and puzzling path ahead toward redevelopment, the owners of the popular eatery have decided to call it quits in Lahaina.

“I don’t believe for a second that they are going to let anybody build on the ocean again,” Laren Gartner, co-founder and owner of Cheeseburger in Paradise, said in a recent interview.

She said that questions about soil toxicity, a debris-removal process that may take years to complete and government lethargy in the face of real economic threat have added to her concerns about Lahaina’s financial future.

The owners of Cheeseburger in Paradise are among dozens of Lahaina entrepreneurs who are deliberating over whether to try to rebuild or reopen their businesses, with some deciding that the risks are too great and the likely delays too long.

Cheeseburger in Paradise on Front Street destroyed on fire of Aug. 8, 2023.
All that remain standing at Cheeseburger in Paradise after the fire are the hurricane reinforcement beams installed in 2015. (Courtesy: Cheeseburger in Paradise)

Another entrepreneur who is throwing in the towel in Lahaina is Charlie Osborn, owner of Island Printing and Imaging, which combined commercial printing and art reproduction, an essential service in a community that employs many artists who sell their work in shops and galleries around the islands.

His shop on Limahana Place, which he ran since 2011, burned down in the fire.

“My customer base was mostly Lahaina and the majority are now out of business,” said Osborn, who is a photographer.

He said before the fire, he had 400 customers who were a mix of businesses and individuals.

The printing company’s departure is a blow, some said.

“That’s a huge loss to our town because he did art reproductions,” said Theo Morrison, executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation. “He printed our Lahaina poster every year. And he printed on demand. In the past, we had to order like 2,000 posters at one time and we would have them all sitting in our office.”

The closure of the shop was a joint decision with Osborn’s life partner, artist Darice Machel McGuire, who taught art classes in an upstairs studio at the shop. Osborn and McGuire both also lost a lifetime of artwork and photography, incinerated in the blaze.

Island Printing and Imaging, before the fire
This shop, Island Printing and Imaging, where art reproductions were printed, was destroyed in the Aug. 8 fire. The owner, Charlie Osborn, has decided not to try to rebuild. He is moving to California. (Courtesy: Darice McGuire)

McGuire’s role in Lahaina was both professional and community-serving. Under her leadership, the Lahaina Arts Association provided free art education to low-income students on Maui, Molokai and Lahaina, paying teachers to instruct them and providing art materials. More than 500 students participated in the program, which stopped a few years ago, McGuire recalled recently.

Osborn and McGuire are moving to California, where they hope to handle some work from Lahaina remotely.

Lack of concrete information from state and local government officials about Lahaina’s future is making it difficult for businesses to go forward, according to Lahaina’s entrepreneurs.

“If they gave us information for timelines then we can start to plan,” said Sne Patel, president of the Lahaina Town Action Committee, an organization of business owners and community advocates founded in 1988.

Darice McGuire teaching art at her upstairs studio, which burned in the fire
Artist Darice McGuire taught art in Lahaina prior to the fire. Her studio was upstairs of Island Printing and Imaging, which burned down in the Aug. 8 fire. The business has shut down, the art school has closed and McGuire is moving to California. (Courtesy: Darice McGuire)

Patel, who is director of sales and advocacy for Maui Resort Rentals, also serves as vice chair of the Maui County Liquor Control Commission, where he is trying to find ways to help businesses relocate from Lahaina to other places on the island.

“We are working to help business pivot faster to the other side of the island,” Patel said.

Gartner, of Cheeseburger in Paradise, for example, is considering opening a Kihei location, a proposal that would require Liquor Control Commission support. She is hoping that her Lahaina liquor license could be transferred to the other location.

The decision to walk away from the Lahaina restaurant after the fire was particularly difficult for Gartner and her business partner because Lahaina was their first restaurant. It was in Lahaina that they conceived the idea of combining a juicy cheeseburger and a visit to paradise, a combination that is the title of a popular Jimmy Buffet song.

Gartner and a friend, Edna Bayliff, had visited Lahaina as tourists in 1986 and one night developed a craving for what they called a “great big gooey, five-napkin cheeseburger,” something they couldn’t find easily on Maui.

The two women went home at the end of their vacation but decided to return to Lahaina to open a cheeseburger restaurant, though they had no food-service experience. Through good fortune, they finagled a five-year lease on the Front Street location. The business grew and they now run five other restaurants and breweries elsewhere, including the Cheeseburger in Paradise eatery in Waikiki.

Artist Darice McGuire specialized in landscapes of Lahaina, before the town was destroyed in the Aug. 8, 2023 fire
This Lahaina landscape, painted by Darice McGuire, depicts the Lahaina seawall before the devastating fire that consumed much of the town. The building to the left is the Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant. (Courtesy: Darice McGuire)

Nobody knows for sure how many of Lahaina’s businesses will wait out what may be years of uncertainty to open again in town. Business owners, some of whom also lost their homes in the conflagration, have dispersed all over the country in the weeks following the fire.

People are losing contact with each other, Morrison said.

“We’re all just disconnected, kind of like during Covid,” she said. “I don’t know how to reach anybody because before, I just walked down the street and talked to people, and now, they are just not there.”

Gartner said she believes that fewer than half of Lahaina’s restaurants and bars remain interested in a future on Maui, based on what she witnessed at a recent Liquor Commission meeting. She said that before the fire, about 50 firms in Lahaina had liquor licenses but that at a recent meeting, only about 21 businesses appeared to be there in person or represented by attorneys.

Patel said the Lahaina Town Action Committee formerly had a total membership of about 90 members, including about 50 business members. He said that about 45 of the business members lost their businesses, many of them on Front Street, and the organization is no longer sending them invoices for membership dues.

“It hits you who isn’t there anymore,” Patel said. “It just hits you when you look down on this list, who isn’t there anymore … and thinking they are not going to come back.”

On the other hand, he said, some businesses that were not formerly members of the association have recently shown interest in becoming more active participants.

Patel’s group organized one of the most effective business meetings held on the island on Sept. 5, when small business owners were able to pose questions to top government officials. Following this event, Patel said, he got some new inquiries for membership.

Some Lahaina restaurants are actively looking for retail locations elsewhere on the island but finding there isn’t much available space, Patel said. Some are considering going into temporary, pop-up locations that would operate something like tiny homes, giving them a venue until they can find permanent locations, he said.

Re-establishing businesses in Lahaina may take a very long time because of all the logistical issues, he said.

“It is going to take anywhere from five to 10 years to create some sort of economic vitality,” he said.

Each business lost diminishes the community’s social capital, each in its own way. Cheeseburger in Paradise in particular played a vital role in Lahaina over the decades.

“They were a great community partner, they supported all our community events,” Patel said. “I know Lahaina is very dear to their hearts. You know, it was a success story from the beginning.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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