Kaimuki’s businesses aim to bounce back as foot traffic increases
It took a leap of faith to stay in business throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, says Liz Schwartz, owner of Coffee Talk in Kaimuki.
The past year has been a blur, but she recalls the struggles of surviving two closures, when her independent cafe on 12th and Waialae avenues was empty due to restrictions, followed by a slow reopening – and now a feeling hope.
âI see the light at the end of the tunnel,â she said.
On a recent weekday, the 25-plus cafe was bustling with customers at every table and a line at the cash register.
It took about six months after the second shutdown for people to feel comfortable coming back, she said. The biggest challenge was paying the rent for its 3,600 square foot space.
As soon as she was able to reopen, she had a display case installed in front, as well as custom plexiglass barriers on casters that can be rolled between tables. She attributes her survival to the support of a loyal neighborhood.
Fortunately, she was able to keep around 20 employees, some of whom have worked for her for years.
âKaimuki is so awesome, and this neighborhood is so loyal and supportive,â she said, âand they keep doing it. I am grateful that we were successful. We cling to it.
Melissa Bow, owner of Via Gelato, also thanked loyal neighborhood customers for helping her business survive.
She said foot traffic had picked up in the neighborhood and the general mood was lighter. On Memorial Day weekend, Via Gelato started offering dinner seating, which was a big milestone.
âMore and more people are coming out,â she said.
She said she has seen a comeback following various waves of COVID-19 vaccination, with more kupuna coming out first, followed by younger clients. His store turned to offering frozen cakes, which have proven to be a hit as people gather again to celebrate.
Schwartz is pivoting into applying for a liquor license, with the intention of offering craft cocktails on Fridays and Saturdays as another source of income.
Just around the corner and on the street, however, others have not been so lucky.
The 12th Avenue space for Gecko Books & Comics, a mainstay of the community for over 30 years, still remains empty after it closed in October.
Graffiti marks the windows, and inside, the space remains dark and empty. A sign from Sofos Realty Corp. indicates that space is still available.
Otto McDonough of Otto Cake, which sells cheesecakes and other desserts on 12th Avenue, says he has never been able to qualify for the town’s small business aid grants than others have received, and still do not know why.
After struggling with slow sales, he had a good bump during the holidays, and business is picking up slightly now. He is also relieved to be fully immunized, which gives him hope.
“I’ll hold on,” he said.
Along the main stretch of Waialae Avenue, empty storefronts tell the story of the impact of the pandemic and the slow pace of recovery.
Top of the Hill, a popular bar, is now closed, as is a Japanese restaurant, Kikue, at 3579 Waialae Ave. On Instagram, Kikue said he couldn’t negotiate with the owner, which led to him shutting down on March 31.
The old Vegan Hill space, which has closed, was briefly occupied by a Mexican restaurant, but is now covered in paper and appears to have a new tenant moving in.
Other victims of the pandemic include Town, chef Ed Kenny’s signature restaurant, which closed in November; the Pillbox pharmacy, which closed in November after 46 years in business; and Collector Maniacs, a comic book and collectibles store at 3571 Waialae Ave., after more than 20 years.
In its place is a new boutique called Keep It Simple, a zero-waste store selling reusable straws, bags and other items.
The former Pillbox Pharmacy space on 11th Avenue also remains empty, with signs for the former occupant now gone.
âYou see people moving in and trying,â said Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii, whose office is located in the neighborhood. âIf you don’t do your homework, it’s a fight. You need to know who your customers are and what they are looking for.
Many landlords now offer short-term leases of three to five years, but even then the spaces have yet to be filled.
Some stores have reduced their hours. Stir, a yogurt store, posted a sign saying it would temporarily close in April but reopen in July.
Near the historic Queen Theater, the space once occupied by Surf N Hula, a vintage store that also closed last year, appears to be the showcase for a nail salon and pawnshop. They were built as part of a set for CBS’s âMagnum PIâ, according to Yamaki, and are not real companies.
Although Oahu has now reached Level 4, restrictions have loosened and more people are venturing out, it will take time for small businesses in this neighborhood to return to normal, he said. she declared.
Tourists have also given Kaimuki’s businesses a boost, according to Yamaki. The carts would drop Japanese visitors into the neighborhood for shopping and dining, but they might not return for some time.
Paying rent remains one of the biggest expenses for a small business, she said, many still owe rent ranging from six months to a year, and each must negotiate terms with their landlords.
During the closures, they still had to pay rent, utilities and taxes, leading to a build-up of debt. Additionally, consumers are not necessarily spending as much as they were before the pandemic.
âSome are only doing 30% of what they used to do,â she said. âIt’s a catch-up game.
Schwartz said that looking back, the support of neighborhood regulars got him through the toughest times.
âIt’s so amazing,â she said, âand my amazing employees who stood up to it all. I am so grateful to them.
After what she’s been through, however, she always braces for the unexpected. The year 2019, after all, was a big year and then the pandemic struck.
âYou think you’re okay and then you’re not and you continue to have blind faith, which is basically what I did,â she said. “Deep down I felt like we had to hold on, and I’m glad we did, but you never know what’s going to happen.”