Operations

In the aftermath of Maui's wildfire, restaurants step up to help

Maui restaurateurs are still evaluating the damage caused by a raging fire that killed at least 110, but now the focus is on helping the "Ohana," or family, of industry workers as they start on the road to recovery.
Lahaina fire
The home of a worker at L&L Hawaiian Barbecue in Lahaina, Hawaii. |Photo courtesy of L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.

Kimo’s Restaurant is gone.

The 400-seat, two-story venue on the waterside of Front Street in the heart of Lahaina, Hawaii was directly in the path of the hurricane-wind-whipped fire that tore through the historic town last week and killed at least 110 people.

Derrick Morales, general manager of Sunnyside Restaurant & Lodge in Tahoe City, Calif., which is also owned by Kimo’s parent TS Restaurants, said company officials haven’t been able to get to the restaurant to fully assess the damage, though the main road was partially opened on Wednesday.

“We can confirm that it’s all pretty much burnt down,” he said. “It’s definitely gone.”

Kimo’s was the first restaurant opened by TS Restaurants in 1977, and remains a flagship for the group, which now has 13 restaurants across various brands in Hawaii and California, including Duke’s, Hula Grill, Keoki’s and Leilani’s.

Known for its Hula Pie—a monster of a pie made with macadamia nut ice cream, warm chocolate fudge and an Oreo crust—Kimo’s was somewhat of a museum for the town, with walls lined with historical documents and photos. Many workers have been there for 40 years, said Susie Saxten, chairman of TS Restaurants and the daughter of one of the founders.

While tragic to think what was likely lost forever in the restaurant itself, Saxten is now more concerned about the group’s nearly 800 employees who live and work on Maui. All are accounted for and safe, though about 215 of them have lost their homes and some have also lost family members, she said.

Though Kimo’s was the only TS location damaged, all of the group’s four restaurants on Maui are closed, with Lailani’s serving as a hub for workers for the time being. It’s not clear when they’ll be able to reopen.

“We’ll open again when it feels right, when everyone is mentally and emotionally ready,” said Saxten.

And they are not alone.

It was deemed the deadliest fire in the U.S., one that razed an estimated 2,200 structures (with another 3,000 damaged), causing an estimated $3.2 billion in insured property losses. Thousands have been displaced. While power was being restored on Wednesday, many had yet to return to the town that was once home to Hawaiian royalty.

Among the restaurants lost to the fire was the Pioneer Inn, which was reportedly Hawaii’s oldest continually operating restaurant. The Pioneer Inn opened in 1901 and once used by whalers who docked in Lahaina and drank at the saloon. The restaurant there, Papa’aina, had closed ahead of the fires.

Fleetwood’s on Front Street, a venue owned by the musician Mick Fleetwood, was also destroyed. “This is a devastating moment for Maui and many are suffering unimaginable loss,” wrote Fleetwood in an Instagram post. “While we are heartbroken our main priority is the safety of our dear staff and team members.”

The 220-unit L&L Hawaiian Barbecue chain had two franchise locations in Lahaina, each operated by franchisees who were also sisters. One lost her business to the flames entirely. The other’s store is still standing, but is temporarily closed because of the lack of power.

Both of the franchisees, however, lost their homes, though happily none among their family, friends or staff were harmed, said Susan Nakamura, L&L’s vice president of marketing and communications.

Here’s a video of the residential area around the L&L Hawaiian unit in Lahaina taken by one of the employees:

 

Not surprisingly, in what has become an all too familiar response following such events, the restaurant community both in Hawaii and on the mainland has rallied to help, hosting fundraisers and preparing meals for those left without homes or jobs in the aftermath.

World Central Kitchen is there, of course, and a group of chefs are also working with local charity Chef Hui (“hui” means tribe in pidgin Hawaiian), which is currently serving about 10,000 meals per day at the University of Hawaii Maui College. Among those joining in the Chef Hui effort is LeeAnne Wong, who lost her restaurant at the Pioneer Inn, along with Sheldon Simeon, Mark “Gooch” Noguchi, Ravi Kapur and Bruce Brombert.

In a message on Instagram, Wong urged those who want to help not to come to the island—there’s just not enough room for people to stay. Instead, she asked for restaurant folks to make food, freeze it and ship to the UHMC campus for Chef Hui to distribute.

 

TS Restaurants is collecting donations through its Legacy of Aloha Foundation, through which the company plans to give grants to the 800 or so employees of both the group and of Maui Brewing Co. Restaurants. The two businesses are separate, but TS Restaurant founder Rob Thibaut’s son Chris Thibaut is on the board of Maui Brewing, Saxten said.

As of Wednesday, about $350,000 had been raised, and counting.

“We’re just so overwhelmed by how supportive everyone has been and we’re getting messages from all over the country about how people loved TS and loved Kimo’s,” Saxten said. “Because we have a 501C3, all the money will go to employees. We’re still working with our insurance company, but people have expenses they need to pay right now.”

Lahaina Grill, also on Front Street, has also raised about $468,688 toward a goal of $750,000 through a GoFundMe to help the more than 40 employees there who are houseless and need basic necessities. Organizers are helping workers file for federal emergency support and unemployment benefits.

“It is cathartic for us to give and receive big hugs in person and cry as well as be productive in making these steps forward,” wrote Ally Mattox in the post. “We are a strong ‘ohana and we are all in this together.”

L&L Hawaiian, meanwhile, is donating $1 per customer order made through the app or online systemwide to support recovery, up to $10,000 through Aug. 31, which will go to the American Red Cross of Hawaii.

Panda Express said one of its restaurants in Lahaina is closed temporarily, but others on Maui are open and operating.

The units in Maui collaborated with the Salvation Army and Red Cross last weekend to host an event to feed more than 600 first responders and community members displaced by the fires, the company said, and more free meals will be provided throughout the month.

Panda officials said workers will continue to receive paychecks while the unit is closed, and the company is providing free counseling services and financial assistance.

Panda Express has also pledged up to $2 million to the American Red Cross through the Panda Cares Foundation and a company pledge to match guest donations collected through donation boxes and online through Aug. 21 at participating U.S. locations.

In San Diego, Cohn Restaurant Group is hosting a GoFundMe page to support the group’s workers at the company’s two restaurants on Maui: The Plantation House and the Castaway Cafe . The Cohn Family has pledged to match up to $100,000. As of Wednesday, the GoFundMe had raised more than $65,000.

Plantation House

Plantation House volunteers preparing meals for those displaced.|Photo courtesy of Cohn Restaurant Group.

Neither restaurant was damaged directly, but both are closed and it’s not clear when they might reopen, said Jenn Kamp, the group’s marketing director. All workers are safe, but about 41 have been displaced.

Plantation House has started a Commissary Kitchen that is helping to provide 2,400 meals to those in need. “We are currently 100% focused on caring for our team and helping in the relief effort any way that we can,” said Kamp in an email.

Elsewhere on Maui, restaurants like Fuego Argentinian Steakhouse in nearby Kahului said they would close to the public for breakfast and lunch to make the kitchen available to volunteers who are preparing food and delivering meals to shelters.

Even in places like Kentucky, Hawaiian chef Valentino Abafo of Kealoah’s Kitchen reportedly said he raffled off poi, a Hawaiian staple, to raise more than $1,860 as of last week for Maui Strong.

Nakamura of L&L Hawaiian, who works out of that brand’s Honolulu office, said she hopes to see the outpouring of support continue, as residents of Maui face a long road ahead.

“It’s a time to show the strength of aloha,” she said. “That’s what we’re based on, the aloha spirit.”

 

UPDATE: This article has been updated to correct information about the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue fundraiser.

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