Tens of thousands of bar and restaurant employees across Hawai‘i have been laid off in the wake of COVID-19 restaurant closings. Some restaurants have trimmed staff, but managed to transition to take- out or delivery service. Hawai‘i’s food supply and distribution systems may depend on how many restaurants can be kept open.
Thousands of restaurant and food service businesses around Hawai‘i have been hit hard in the last two weeks, with fears about the novel coronavirus, then the closing of in-room dining.
“Some of the larger restaurants have been able to keep more of their employees, some of the small ones have had to go to bare bones and it’s a husband-and-wife situation,” said Denise Yamaguchi, executive director of the Hawai‘i Agricultural Foundation.
The foundation has launched the Food-A-Go-Go website to connect diners with restaurants doing takeout. Yamaguchi says switching from in-room dining to takeout is complicated, and with health restrictions, involves only a fraction of a restaurant’s previous workers.
“Most people don’t know there are two sides of our food system.”
Yamaguchi points out one food system provides for hotels and restaurants in Hawai‘i, another system supplies retail grocery chains. Right now, suppliers and distributors for the hotel and restaurant side are dealing with surplus, no one is using the food, meanwhile, grocery stores have empty shelves. Yamaguchi says the industry is working on connecting those supplies to needs in other parts of the system.
“You also see that with the farmers as well as with the fishermen. Most of the fishermen and farmers, their products are sold to the restaurant industry.”
Evidence of supply line shifts are apparent in the grocery stores. Restaurants aren’t buying ‘ahi and aku---that’s why it’s in the unheard-of $6-a-pound range in Honolulu supermarkets. Fishermen can't afford to continue at that rate, other suppliers are in the same boat, and Yamaguchi fears Hawai'i's food supply and distribution system could be critically damaged.
"All of this is not an easy pivot for them, so that's an issue that maybe the public doesn't see. It’s not just about the restaurant suffering, it’s about everybody in that food supply chain that’s trying to figure out what to do.”
One thing you can do, check foodagogo.org for a listing of over 600 restaurants on every island offering takeout. Restaurant owners can register their eatery so people know takeout is available, too.