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Buying a restaurant in the middle of the pandemic led to some sleepless nights, but one owner is thriving

The Counter restaurant
The Counter
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The pandemic and subsequent mandates have wreaked havoc on businesses, especially restaurants, across the country. Hawaiʻi is no exception. A recent survey by the Hawaiʻi Restaurant Association showed that about 80% of restaurant owners lost about a third of their business during the recent delta surge.

Still, there have been success stories — those businesses that have managed to not only survive the turbulence, but thrive. A restaurant at Kahala Mall is one such example.

It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and the grills at The Counter in Honolulu are alive with the sound of sizzling beef. The restaurant is known for serving dozens of variations of hamburgers, along with chili, chicken, salads, fries and shakes.

"We have 85 different ingredients and options," said owner Jon Muranaka, as he looks over his kitchen as the crew prepares for the lunch rush.

He can breathe a little easier now, but there were times over the past year when he wondered whether he’d still be standing here.

Last September, Muranaka did something that some may consider foolhardy. Or naïve. Or reckless. Or all of the above.

The Counter Kahala.JPG
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The Counter at Kahala Mall

He bought The Counter, an underperforming restaurant that had seen revenues fall for several years straight, in the middle of the pandemic.

Muranaka did not have a lick of restaurant operations experience, although he did do marketing for foodservice establishments earlier in his career. But the ins and outs of operating a restaurant — that was all new.

To say he was facing a challenge is a little like saying the Eiffel Tower is somewhat of a landmark.

"There’s a lot of personal guarantees that go into any business, right?  I mean so, you’ve got to put your personal savings, your retirement, your home on the line for a business, so it’s not like you can just walk away from it," he told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Muranaka says the first few months were a whirlwind as he got to know the business. He did everything there was to do — food prep, cooking, plating, serving, greeting customers, clearing tables. Oh, and there was the administrative side to worry about too.

the counter burger.jpg
The Counter
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He took over The Counter in the middle of the lockdown and admits there were some sleepless nights.

After several months, an interesting thing happened. The Counter’s customer base grew, and revenues increased. This past July, revenues were 50% higher than they were in the same month in 2019 — that is, before the pandemic even started.

Muranaka says that’s where his background in marketing came in.

"We started doing digital ads, because prior they weren’t doing anything, and that’s the number one way to be hitting customers," Muranaka said. "We were doing public relations. I think a lot of people are willing to support local businesses, so I really emphasized that in public relations and social media. Prior to me, there really wasn’t that much activity. So that’s why I focused in on those three areas to really spread the message."

One key variable that all restaurants face is the turnover of employees. That’s been exacerbated by the COVID-19 mandates, lockdowns, and overall uncertainty in the labor market.

Muranaka says The Counter hasn’t been immune to that. But he’s found a way to make working there more appealing.

"We have a referral program that we’ve been using, so we’ve been able to get people. For the most part, our core people are here, we have a great team, and really, part of me coming in, I wanted to implement a better culture," he said. "Now it’s a family business. Before, it was owned by a corporation on the mainland. And now it’s a family business, they know that I’m here, I’m working alongside with them, I’m not just telling them what to do, but I’m working alongside with them."

So after entering the restaurant business during the worst economic environment in a dozen years, does Muranaka feel he’s turned the corner?

"I’m still on the fence about that. I mean, we’ve had great sales success, but at the same time, you’re only as good as your yesterday’s sales, right? So it’s a journey, not a destination," Muranaka said.

Despite the uncertainty still hanging over Hawaiʻi’s economic recovery, Muranaka is grateful that he’s made it this far, and says the lessons he’s learned will help navigate whatever challenges the future may bring.

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