Hawaii Restaurants Scramble To Keep Business Going With No Dine In

Mar 20, 2020

County regulations that prohibit restaurant dining go into effect on O‘ahu and Maui today. As meal service and wait staff hit the unemployment lines, restaurants and bars that are able are switching to takeout and delivery only. 

Credit Noe Tanigawa / Hawai'i Public Radio

  Even before the directives from the counties, business for some eateries had slowed. dining out last weekend was already down 60% to 70%, according to Tom Jones, chair of the Hawai‘i Restaurant Association.

“The income is just drying up in restaurants left and right,” he said as he made signs at his own restaurant in Pearl City.

Jones’s signs read, “Take Out Service available.” He estimates in a full-service restaurant, about 60% of hours would be cut in switching to all takeout.

“I’m sure restaurants are meeting all around the island with their staffs and working on adjusting schedules and determining who is most needed.”

He says many restaurants will try to spare those who can least afford the pain, ‘ohana style.

Jones, who owns the Gyotaku restaurants, says front of the house staff and supplies combine with services customers don’t see, including food prep, dishwashing, and maintenance functions that involve fire suppression, electricity and plumbing.

In 2019, the National Restaurant Association estimated Hawaii had 98,900 restaurant and related food service jobs, about 15% of employment in the state.

“It’s a lot of people serving a lot of people -- that’s what the hospitality industry is all about. We’re hopeful that by being cooperative with the health department we’ll reduce the time it takes to get this virus under control,” he said.

On Tuesday, Gov. David Ige strongly suggested that dining rooms across the state be closed, and by Wednesday, O‘ahu and Maui county mayors underscored the message with penalties for violations starting today.  

Only takeout, pickup, or delivery of prepared food are allowed. 

Jones says doing takeout only will be a snap for some places---many already provide the service.

Hardest hit may be the fine dining sector, where takeout would present particular challenges. According to the Hawai‘i  Restaurant Association, there were more than 3,600 eating and drinking establishments  in 2018.

It’s still unknown how many will attempt the takeout challenge but already, there’s been a run on disposable takeout containers, according to Chris Yankowski, president of Triple F Distributing, one of Hawai‘i’s largest product distributors.

Supplies of hand sanitizer have also been in short supply. 

“We just got some in today -- hand sanitizers and things like that, but it's pretty much spoken for, so it's moving out as soon as it gets in,” he said.

Yankowski says suppliers are limiting distributors’ allocations, too.

"If we order 10 pallets of product, they may give us two. Hand sanitizers and things like that, most of that is going to be out for probably 45 to 60 days because China makes those bottles and everybody who packs them over here, Purell and those guys, they’re out of bottles."

"And we have the same issue with toilet paper. The converters that make the paper are running out of raw materials.”

Isn't that the situation hoarders had feared? “Yeah, I guess if you look at it that way, I guess that’s true,” he said.

Taking a cue from experiences on the Mainland, Yankowski upped his orders for takeout food containers and paper goods, but is running into supply limitations.

“We asked for 680 cases of utensils, and they’re going to give us 168. That‘s what’s going on across the board with everything we’re ordering that has any relationship to the Covid," he said.

Yankowski says there are work-arounds if paper goods become scarce, but with many things, hand sanitizer, for example, after current supplies, replacements could be 45 to 60 days out. The product may be available, but Chinese supply chain manufacturers are still getting up to speed.

Triple F and other distributors report generally rationing flow for regular customers, and accomodating new orders as supplies permit. Needs are prioritized, too, said Yankowski. For example, the stevedores have called for more sanitizer, and he will honor their request if at all possible.