Supporting Local Businesses: MOA Kitchen
The COVID-19 lockdown introduced an unprecedented time for Hawai’i’s schools, community, and businesses. While our schools and community could adapt, our economy became a major concern. Hawai’i heavily relies on tourism and small businesses, both susceptible to COVID-19’s wrath. With the limited assistance from the government’s PPE loans, local business owners had to navigate the lockdown with caution.
MOA Kitchen is one restaurant in Waimea who has successfully maintained sales and safety protocols since the beginning of the pandemic. They first opened up January with overwhelming support from the community. MOA Kitchen is Waimea’s first “Izakaya,” a form of Japanese casual dining, and one of the only places on the island to specialize in yakitori. Unfortunately, they were only able to stay open for dine-in for a few months up until the shutdown in March.
However, Etsuko Nomura, MOA’s restaurant consultant, describes the shutdown as a partial blessing in disguise.
“When we opened in January, the front of the house was very disorganized. We were very busy—which was good, but our staff wasn’t fully trained to handle it. The corona shutdown gave us time to restructure so it was kind of a good thing.”
Throughout the lockdown, MOA Kitchen remained open for takeout and delivery. They started a “Grab-and-Go” event where cars could drive up to the front to pick up free bentos. The employees volunteered their time to prepare 150 bentos to support the community during these uncertain times.
As the government started to lift restrictions, MOA prepared to open their doors and welcome their customers once again. The managers at MOA Kitchen carefully measured out six-feet of distance between the tables and ensured their servers would always wear masks and sanitize during their shift. While the safety protocols have been successful so far, the managers continue to evaluate what else they can do to establish a safe environment for the customers and the employees.
Haruki Higashitai and the other managers are focusing on what they can do now, because “[We] can’t predict what is going to happen.”
As Koshiro Funasaki, the kitchen manager, puts it, “nobody ever had this kind of experience, facing this kind of situation. It has been difficult to prioritize what is important and gather information.”
Haruki-san, the head chef, shares that they want to do their best to reduce employee anxiety.
He explains, “it is necessary to protect the employees, but as long as [we] are open for business, it is dangerous, so the result is that the employees are put at risk.”
Photo from MOA Kitchen
From the server’s perspective, Romar Maltezo describes it as a “rollercoaster.”
“When we first re-opened, I feel like we did a great job with limiting guest counts as well as trying to keep the social distance in effect. Although I personally felt like we were ready, a lot of people were still worried to come out. As a server, our paychecks really depend on tips. And for a month or two that was a struggle. With not [many] people coming in to eat, it really reflected on our sales and paychecks. Although we struggled a lot, I feel like today we are doing much better.”
The business and safety of the restaurant depends on the customers as well. Romar describes the community and environment of Waimea and how that is translated into the restaurant.
“Growing up on the islands, we are accustomed to having a large family. Some may be blood, and some may even be the people you grew up with. Yet you still consider them as family. I can recall us having a strict rule of no more than 6 on a reservation...I felt like a lot of people weren’t taking this new restriction into consideration... It’s always hard to make the call because we know how big some families can be.”
Romar and Haruki-san share the belief that the customers’ reactions to the new restrictions are “50/50.”
“There is a big division between guests who care and those who don’t”
However, many customers come back for MOA’s vibrant atmosphere and delicious food. Funasaki-san jokes that the boisterous “Irashai” and “Aloha” greetings will scare COVID-19 away the minute you walk into the restaurant.
Despite the challenges, MOA Kitchen wants to emphasize their gratefulness for the community’s support. Haruki-san credits their success to “local customers” and the employees who don’t give up. In the midst of a pandemic, MOA Kitchen welcomes you with an enthusiastic “Irashaimase!” and continues their commitment to bring quality Japanese food to Waimea.
Photos taken by Hana-Lei Ji and Etsuko Nomura