When the world learned in spring 2020 that the COVID-19 virus spread best in packed indoor spaces where people laughed, talked and ate together, the knowledge sounded an alarm bell for the restaurant industry that continued to ring for months.
But just as teachers, barbers, office workers and artists have learned the ins and outs of operating during a pandemic, so too have restaurateurs, pushing owners and managers to find creative solutions and keep their staff and customers safe while staying afloat in an industry with notoriously thin profit margins.
Take Pau Hana, a Hawaiian restaurant that opened in Savage in early August. Chef and owner Chris Ikeda has been working on the concept for Pau Hana for six years, and even for an industry veteran (he opened Lake & Irving restaurant in Minneapolis in 2013), he’s had to adapt to the restrictions of COVID times, he said.
“It has been a long process, but sometimes the best deals take time,” Ikeda said.
Pau Hana is currently only open for dinner service beginning at 4 p.m. as part of the restaurant’s plan to grow slow, steady and strong. As the phased opening continues, the restaurant will make its patio and express to-go service available to diners.
“At the end of the day, we want to build the business up without sacrificing quality,” Ikeda explained.
The built-in express to-go area is a product of pandemic adaption. As restaurants turned toward take-out to keep the lights on, many created exterior-facing windows to allow customers and staff to stay socially distanced while they ordered or picked up a meal.
In early 2020, many of those operations were makeshift solutions, but as the pandemic dragged on, many did what Pau Hana has done and built the take-out infrastructure into the restaurant’s design.
“It’s part of the reason we built the express concept into the building,” Ikeda explained. “People’s behaviors have changed and they have learned how to order online. They want to be able to enjoy a higher-quality takeout meal.”
As indoor dining has reopened this summer, many restaurants have faced an entirely different problem in the form of a widespread labor shortage. Pau Hana hasn’t had trouble hiring, though, in part because, managers started interviewing staff well before opening day to compensate for what they knew would be a challenging labor market, Ikeda said.
As much as restaurants can change their behavior and infrastructure, some things − like the global supply chain and inflation − are out of even the best-prepared chef’s control.
“It’s like playing a never ending game of whack-a-mole,” Ikeda said, of supplying Pau Hana. “One day we are unable to get some liquor because there is a glass bottle shortage. The next day we are not able to get lobster because it’s $42. Today’s challenge is small to-go boxes. A lot of times we are sent scrambling when products are out of stock because maintaining consistency is key in the restaurant business.”
Still, Pau Hana has done well enough in its few weeks of operation to earn an early fan base, if customer enthusiasm is anything to go by.
“Even though we are only two weeks old, the feedback has been great,” Ikeda said. “After the last couple years, it was obviously an incredible achievement just being able to open the doors.”