“I think I’m going to close the restaurants today.”
Renowned chef Mark Ellman’s voice was filled with emotion as he pondered the announcement he would make to his 140 employees at Frida’s Mexican Beach House and Honu Seafood, his family-owned Lahaina restaurants, Tuesday afternoon. MauiTime’s conversation with the restaurateur preceded Governor Ige’s directive to close all dine-in service at restaurants, which was announced later that day.
In a letter to Mayor Michael Victorino that afternoon, Ellman wrote: “I have made a very difficult decision to close both my restaurants… after dinner service tonight. My family and I believe to do our part to flatten the virus curve is more important than anything. And not to endanger any of our employees with getting sick. Mr. Mayor, we are extremely sad we are putting our employees in financial crisis. We do not want our Kupuna to get sick. We plan on reopening.”
Ellman is no stranger to the business; he’s been a successful chef and restaurant owner on Maui for more than 30 years. That deep experience makes his angst over the current COVID-19 (coronavirus) crisis all the more sobering when considering the issues faced by the island’s restaurant industry.
Ellman said his restaurants will stay open for a “small dinner menu” of take-out items. “If we could make the to-go food a reality – if you’re tired of cooking frozen food or whatever – then we could add a little positiveness to what 100 percent of us are going through. So maybe doing that would save about 25 employees. But if no one orders food, obviously we’ll have to lay off the rest of our employees and close completely and then try to negotiate a rent release with our landlord.”
Although Ellman acknowledged that business had fallen below the break-even point during the past few days, it was clear that his employees’ well-being was weighing most heavily on him. “At face value it seems like a horrible decision but it may be the kindest decision,” he said. “To get all my people on unemployment as fast as possible, so they can figure out their lives. It won’t do anybody any good if I try to stay open and then go bankrupt.”
Ellman said he currently pays $570 a month for each employee’s health insurance. “I can COBRA them (a health insurance program that allows an eligible employee continued benefit),” he said. “But they’ll still have to pay that amount out-of-pocket, unless the governor decrees something else.”
“No one’s going to understand it,” he said glumly, “but I feel we have this duty to make this decision. To not be part of what spreads this fire any further. It’s just a matter of time and we don’t want to be Italy. It’s the right thing to do.”
Photo courtesy Sean Hower