‘Changed forever’

  • Allan Parachini / Special to The Garden Island

    Tom Pickett is owner and operator of Kilauea Bakery & Pizza.

  • Allan Parachini / Special to The Garden Island

    Erin Descoteaux is the owner and operator of Sushi Girl in Kilauea.

KILAUEA — Tom and Katie Pickett had a plan.

They’d owned and operated Kilauea Bakery &Pizza for 29 years, but were tired of the daily grind, sustaining a staff of 32 and the challenges that go with it.

The bakery was open seven days a week, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. When the first staff member — a baker — to arrive each day didn’t show up at 4 a.m., Tom Pickett had to get out of bed and go work the ovens.

Their two daughters are both in their 30s and live on the mainland. One is a marine biologist in North Carolina, the other a physical therapy assistant in Santa Cruz, California.

The Picketts had a dream. They’d sell the bakery but remain based on Kaua‘i. But they’d also buy a motor home on the mainland and spend time traveling the country. “We were pretty ready to retire. I wanted to see what else there is in life,” Tom Pickett said.

So, earlier this year, he put the bakery up for sale. A buyer — with credible restaurant experience — materialized quickly. The transaction went into escrow. But then COVID-19 hit. The escrow died.

The bakery tried to make a go of it. Handwashing sinks were briefly installed outside, but the necessary order from Mayor Derek Kawakami that shut down restaurants except those exclusively offering takeout service required full, indefinite closure.

The Picketts realized their workers also needed help. Tom Pickett said a few days ago that Hawai‘i’s unemployment insurance system is so unreliable that, while all 32 staff members applied for benefits, only three have actually gotten money.

So, several weeks ago, the Picketts started to plan for the bakery’s reopening, in a form that will seem at once familiar and alien, on Monday, May 4. Hours will be 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Not just the bakery, but the entire restaurant industry on Kaua‘i will, the Picketts and other restaurant owners predicted, be radically different, and probably much smaller than before.

The intimacy of dining out may be replaced by smaller operations that end up substituting smartphone apps for servers and menus. The apps may show the food and drink offerings, take the orders and generate the checks, which will be paid through the same phones.

If restaurants are required to space their tables farther apart to comply with social-distancing requirements, radical steps will be required to bring down labor costs — a third of the operating budget for many restaurants, according to one owner.

The Picketts are hoping to avoid making the bakery unrecognizable. But a small indoor dining area is closed. Customers will not longer actually enter the building. The handwashing sinks will return. The tables and chairs under the awning outside, which made the bakery perhaps Kilauea’s best-known community meeting place, are gone, replaced by potted plants.

Menu boards will list a reduced number of offerings, though the variety of coffee drinks, teas, pastries, salads, sandwiches, soups, stews and pizza for which the bakery is known will remain.

Initially, about five employees will be brought back to work, but Tom Pickett said he hopes that if the reopening strategy succeeds, the restaurant could get back to operating on two shifts again and reemploy more workers. He applied for and received, he said, one of the federal government’s much-discussed Payroll Protection Plan loans. But when he read the terms and conditions, he decided the bakery probably couldn’t fully comply, and sent the money back.

Most uncertain in all of this are the Picketts’ retirement plans. “Sometimes you just gotta eat the dish you’re served,” he said.

The Picketts said they will tap their savings until revenues recover, though they realize that may not happen. They said they think they can stay afloat for at least two months — maybe longer. “We’re entering a period that is the inverse of the economies of scale,” Tom Pickett said. “Things will not go so well for many restaurants.”

“How will it go? I’m not sure,” Katie Pickett said. She said the April, 2018, flood events in Hanalei and environs were a blow to the bakery’s fortunes, and resulted in the restaurant slipping out of profitability. The situation had stabilized and the financial picture was approaching its pre-flood norm when COVID-19 hit.

“We can hold on, but we’re never going to be able to employ all of the people we had before,” she said.

The Picketts said it was difficult emotionally to realize how close they had gotten to living their retirement dream. “I guess it depends on which day you ask me,” Katie Pickett said. “After a few days and weeks went by” in the wake of the sale transaction falling out of escrow, she said, “I kept thinking we were so close. So close.”

Kong Lung Market Center, where the bakery is located, is also the home to three other eateries: Sushi Girl, a food trailer parked in the courtyard and owned and operated by Erin Descoteaux; the Bistro, a long established sit-down restaurant; and Palate, a wine bar. The Bistro and Palate are owned by Matt Ernsdorf.

After COVID-19 hit, all of them ended up in urgent meetings with Patti Ewing, their landlord. Ewing, all three restaurant owners said, responded sympathetically. Kong Lung also houses several retail establishments.

Ewing said she was initially inclined to simply defer April rent payments in the belief that the pandemic would pass soon enough to allow tenants to resume operation in June. But a few days ago, Ewing said she quickly realized that assumption was far too optimistic. “I honestly haven’t decided if I’m going to defer the May rents again, or just forgive them.

“The food business will be changed forever. I have 10 tenants and I’m just trying to work with them. The real elephant in the room is that 70% of our sales come from visitors. Under the best-case scenario, that’s not going to come back any time soon. I see this as a time to step back and let the dust settle.”

Sushi Girl has stayed open continuously. Descoteaux said she’s had to lay off her employees. Today, she operates Sushi Girl on her own, but takes no salary, and hopes there will be enough of a recovery to allow staffing to ramp back up. She applied for, but did not receive, a federal small-business loan.

Sushi Girl enjoys a strong local customer base, which has so far resulted in its survival, Descoteaux said. “I feel like the community still needs to eat,” she said. “I don’t have much overhead. I work very closely with local fishermen and produce farmers. I’m paying my bills.” Ewing, Descoteaux said, has been “very reasonable.”

Ernsdorf followed what has become a common strategy among Kaua‘i restaurants. He shut down the Bistro and closed Palate for seating inside, but switched to a limited carry-out menu. He instituted online ordering and customers now pick up their food at a wine and liquor store next door, which Ernsdorf also owns.

He said he applied for and got a PPP loan for Palate, but not the Bistro, because he sees no imminent reopening. He said one of his wholesale suppliers believes the mortality rate for small restaurants post-COVID may hit 75%.

He said the restaurant industry that survives will be vastly different. Returning customers, he said, will likely be unwilling to touch things like menus, so switching to smartphone apps will be required. The apps, he said, will enable reduction in staffing levels by eliminating host/hostess and server positions. Containers of hand sanitizer will be on every table.

“The safety of people is going to be crucial,” he said. “The order goes electronically to the kitchen, then someone wearing a mask brings out the food.” He said he is convinced customers will eventually prefer this system. “You’ll be able to order another glass of wine without waving for a server to come over,” he said. “Dessert sales will go up. Customer satisfaction will go up.”

The staff that remains, he predicted, will get tipped more, because in online ordering systems most customers accept a 20% tip option. “The rules have changed,” he said. Some eateries, he said, may switch to single-use service items like plates, knives and forks. He said he fears government health regulators may start rating restaurants based on their level of COVID-19 infection risk. “If restaurants can’t make people feel safe, they’re not gonna survive,” he said.

He said his takeout business featuring food from the Palate menu, has held its own, bringing in $500 to $1,000 per night.

Down the road in Hanalei, Joe Paskal, owner of Postcards, a specialty fish house, also switched to takeout service with a limited menu. He cut his prices by 50%.

He said he retained his chef and manager, but laid off the rest of the staff. “Some days, I have no people. Last night, five came in,” he said. He applied for and received a PPP loan, he said. Paskal, who opened Postcards after decades running a successful studio lighting business and electronics store in Los Angeles, says he can sustain operations for “three months, maybe four.”

After his years of unrelated business success, Paskal said, “I feel you have to give back a little.”

Revenues have been underwhelming, he said, hitting as low as zero some nights, and $120 on other days. The night before he spoke with The Garden Island, he said, Postcards enjoyed its highest revenue during the crisis.

$400.

“It’s not all about money,” he said.

•••

Allan Parachini is a Kilauea resident, furniture-maker, journalist and retired public relations executive who writes periodically for The Garden Island.

7 Comments
  1. Everythingisawesome May 3, 2020 7:34 am Reply

    Allan,
    Good article. Thank you. It is important to show the true cost of the shortsighted decisions of a few bureaucrats. The cost isn’t just 6 trillion dollars in debt. The cost isn’t just the potential for bankruptcy for companies like Hawaiian Air and Hilton Hotels. The lives of the people that live next door have been ‘changed forever’. How about ‘destroyed’. That’s not a word to be glossed over. Destroyed. Everyday people who are the core of our economy, our livelihood, have had their entire futures reshaped. If somebody doesn’t end this crisis, today we will lose the bakery and sushi. Tomorrow we will lose the surf shop, the athletic club and gas stations. Eventually there will be no road crews, minor emergency centers, lifeguards or baggage handlers. All because of an irrational fear that if we go outside without covering our face or get closer than 6 feet to somebody, or drive to other side of the island to surf, or handle the same menu that someone else touched, or, first and foremost, allow someone from the mainland to spend a week in Poipu, that somebody’s grandmother will die as a result. It’s irrational to think you can create a world where Grandma and your Aunties won’t come into contact with a virus. In NY and NJ they can’t even keep the virus out of nursing homes, supposedly run by medical professionals and the National Guard, where everything is supposedly “locked down”. And evidence shows that, on Kauai, the virus hasn’t been strong enough to take anyone…even an older couple with lung cancer and asthma. In the end, a pandemic takes whatever lives it is destined to take. Let’s not add our livelihoods, i.e. our ‘economy’, to the list of casualties. An app for ordering wine and hand sanitizer isn’t what’s going to save the bakery. Opening the island is the only thing that will.
    To the fearmongers that say opening the island is reckless and will kill us all…keeping the island closed will have the same result and we might even end up dead sooner. Opening now would be no less safe for island residents than it was between January and late March when the 14 day arrival quarantine went into effect. Anyone who denies this is spreading unfounded fear and distrust. How ‘safe’ was it before the 14 day quarantine went into effect? Zero detectable community spread. Zero deaths. You can’t get any ‘safer’ if that is how you measure ‘safe’. I invite anyone who disagrees to tell me how we are now less ‘safe’ than we were in March.
    Oh, I have one more question for Mr. Pickett and Ms. Descoteaux: What did you tell Mayor Kawakami when he asked you personally how his administration could help support your business?


  2. mina May 3, 2020 7:51 am Reply

    Karma has sharp teeth for those who spend their days fleecing tourists. The days of the $30 pizza and $15 ice cream cone are over. You can line up in the streets with your signs and moan about it all you want. Demand your “rights” to be swindle people when spend a fortune to come here, but be willing to pay the price when karma bites back.


  3. Rev Dr Malama May 3, 2020 9:08 am Reply

    All the feel good intentions aside, I would advise that you live your dream now, NOT try to reinvent a supporting business, especially on Kauai!


  4. Daniel May 3, 2020 10:27 am Reply

    This is pathetic to read. We had the the worst two flu seasons in decades and nobody even batted an eye. Over 100 hundred infants died and not a single word about them on the news. How many kids died or were injured by the all the vaccines that are now mandated? Nobody interested? Now we have COVID which has a similar mortality rate and TGI, Staradvertise, and all the other left wing media are perpetuating this lie that there is a new normal coming and nothing will return to pre covid times until a vaccine is created! I’d rather get Covid than take their untested, unsafe vaccine. What about our suicides, overdoses, alcohol related deaths? Liquor stores are deemed essential business? If government cared about you, Vitamin C and exercise would be mandated, not forbidden. What better way to keep a virus in our community than keep everyone indoors watching doom and gloom on the news on nice sunny days! Truth is, covid was circulating around Hawaii in December and January, antibody testing will soon prove that. Mainstream media mind control dial is turned all the way up as they have ultra wealthy Bill Gates, CDC, WHO, and CHINA taking complete control of your life through tracking, mandatory vaccinations, and government welfare. People better wake up and realize before it’s too late that the rights we were given at birth through the US Constitution and bill of rights are being erased for good. Anyone with a little common sense can see this for what it is.


  5. Michael Mann May 3, 2020 2:47 pm Reply

    This is what happens when the COUNTRY is led by incompetence. This should be a lesson to everyone.

    But I know it won’t be.


  6. cp fullington May 3, 2020 5:00 pm Reply

    Potential customers who don’t have Smartphones have to go somewhere else?.


  7. Les Drent May 4, 2020 9:26 am Reply

    This is a terribly misleading article and it’s unfortunate that the author did not fully research before writing. Tom and Katie are caring small business owners and good people, but the information on the SBA’s PPP in this article is simply wrong. To cut employees loose to the lousy Hawaii unemployment system rather than use the PPP loan is a disservice to them. Rules on forgiveness are clear, but few actually read them. One more reason to not believe anything in the media. https://www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/2020-04/PPP%20Interim%20Final%20Rule_0.pdf


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