Kona Kitchen: Finding Ohana Amidst COVID
In early March, as COVID was picking up steam, Kona Kitchen was looking for ways to keep their two locations running, even converting to take-out only before the rest of the industry. They were also dealing with the pandemic on a personal level. In late March, COVID claimed co-owner and matriarch Elizabeth Mar, and her husband Robert.
“For those of you who knew her, Liz was always a great source of Aloha. She shall be fondly remembered as the best grandma, fun-loving friend, devoted spouse, generous benefactor, first-rate source of amusing gossip and mother
extraordinaire. We shall forever miss her cheerfulness, wonderful sense of humor and kind heart.”
Now, four months later, we checked in with Kona Kitchen to see how they’re doing as a family and a business, and to see what a path back to normal looks like, for them.
Communities: Maple Leaf and Lynnwood Interview with: Angie Okumoto
Kona Kitchen is almost twenty years old and had recently opened a second location in Lynnwood. How did this all get started?
My husband has been an actor his whole career but he had been talking for a long time about starting a business and specifically a Hawaiian restaurant – but it just didn’t seem possible in Los Angeles. When he and I got together and he came up to Seattle, he started to think about it more. This seemed like the place to do it and it felt like the right time. I think it was that transition, in moving, wanting to start a family, and wanting to pursue something new that was also creative.
At the same time, my mom was getting ready to retire and sell her shares of the restaurant that she had in Bremerton.
It all came together. It was right around 9/11 so the economy was rough, but we made the decision to do it and to invest in this as jobs for ourselves.
You started this restaurant as a family. What was important to you all to share, through that experience?
Our family had always been really open - we welcomed all of our friends and extended community into our home and treated them like family. And, we were able to do that at the restaurant too. That’s what I really liked about the experience – it felt like we were hosting and entertaining our guests, like we would our own family.
When we opened Kona, it was really important that we built on that experience. We were able to share that Ohana feeling (a Hawaiian term meaning "family) with all of our customers.
You grew up working in a restaurant, but owning a restaurant is different.
I started out working in my mom’s previous restaurant as a busser and a host, eventually a server. And, even when I was older, and I had just started dating Yuji, he would come visit from L.A. and we’d go over to my parents’ house for the weekend - I would wait tables and he would just bus tables for me. But we would also hang out and it was fun. The whole restaurant vibe is fun. But, yes, it’s different when you own and operate a business. You have to do all the work in preparing the food and hosting the customers, but then turn around and manage the stress of owning a business. To this day I still love it, but it is different as an owner – I’ll get caught up in conversations with customers and it's like, oh, I have to do payroll!
How did you make that transition, from working in a restaurant with your mom, to owning a restaurant with her?
Normally I would never recommend going into business with good friends or family members, but I know that my mom and I have the type of relationship where we can just bark at each other and then the next minute be like, OK, what are we doing? So, it works.
You’ve had your first location in Seattle for almost 20 years, but the second location in Lynnwood is newer. How did that location come to be and how was it doing when COVID hit?
The second one had just opened, January 2019, so we were just trying to get into a groove and things were just starting to get steady. That was after a whole year of construction. I thought it would be just a few months of construction and, then, when we dug into it, I thought maybe 5 or 6. But, no, it turned into a year. We were going do just a makeover: Redo the floors, paint everything. But, then we decided to reconfigure the kitchen and the inside of the space was in worse shape than we realized. We didn’t want to make shortcuts – we wanted it done right.
Needless to say, we were coming into our opening with a lot of debt. But business was building and we felt like it was starting to take off.
We'd been thinking about this second location for about four years. We wanted to do it right and have the right space but, I keep thinking, what if we had found it sooner and had more of a runway before all of this hit?
But, it has been really surprising for us how quickly we’ve been able to build a following in Lynnwood. We’ve really been able to pull from that whole north side, even up from in Snohomish and Marysville.
Who are your customers? Why are they traveling to for your restaurant?
The interesting thing about Hawaiian food is that you do have your traditional, native Hawaiian dishes, both we only serve a few of those. Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures. It's not Pan Asian food, but you do have foods from all the Asian countries. And so a lot of what we offer are the favorite comfort foods from each culture. Our restaurants attract not only the people from Hawaii looking for a taste of home, but other Asian people who just like Asian food.
They’re also coming in for this connection to community. The Maple Leaf restaurant is in a neighborhood - so we have this whole neighborhood of families that essentially grew up with our family - our kids have all grown up at Kona together. It was like a daycare slash eatery.
We’ve also got the destination folks. Folks who are going to Hawaii next week and want to get a head start on the food. Or folks who just got off the plane from Hawaii and their first stop is Kona Kitchen. Now, that means a lot to me. For us, when we go to Hawaii, our first stop is Zippy's and our last stop is Zippy’s. There are a lot of people who do that with us. And it's pretty amazing to me.
Your two restaurants were in different places at the beginning of this year: 1 was established, the other still new. 1 was in deeply embedded in a neighborhood, the other in a business district. What happened in March?
It was tricky because my parents became sick pretty early, so we were trying to take care of them, trying to keep ourselves safe, trying to keep the businesses running, and trying to balance how much we share about what’s happening. We were faced with this decision of do we go public with our story or not? We didn’t know how our customers would react.
But, we were just overwhelmed with positive support.
We did close both restaurants for about a week, so that we could do a deep clean and take the space we needed to assess our next steps. And, when we reopened, we decided to shift to take-out only, before the governor mandated it.
Having seen my parents go through COVID, we were being even more careful to keep the restaurants safe. We were more concerned, for our staff and customers.
We were also dealing with the personal challenge of then losing my parents and the very real impact of, specifically, losing my mom, who was so essential to the business.
You’ve had such a journey as business owners and a family over the past few months…what are you thinking about, now, as we begin to re-open the economy?
We’re thinking a lot about what kind of experience we want to offer. Do we want to just offer take-out or can we bring people back in, on the patios? Can staff bring the food back and forth or is it just counter service? That’s a more limited interaction but, at least, customers would be able to come in with their families and enjoy a meal.
You know, my mom, she was one of those people, she was just built strong, she just kept going. She taught me - you don't stop, you just do what you need to do, you just keep going.
So, right now, I think the challenge that I'm facing is taking the time to sort through this, to be creative, and figure things out: what's this new process, what do we need build? Because all of the changes that need to made, those are the owner's responsibility.
What kind of support have you gotten in keeping the businesses running?
PPP didn’t work for us. I realized, in filling out these applications, that the whole point of PPP is to employ more people. But, to re-open and hire back more people, we needed to invest in more modifications to make it safe. So that didn’t work. Even switching to the technology updates and mobile payments, that adds more costs.
But, it was also just so overwhelming at the beginning. I was having to figure out whether PPP would work, while dealing with my own grief and trying to run the businesses. Maybe if they continue to loosen up the rules, PPP will work for us and for more businesses.
For us, the smaller grants and more local options for relief funding have been more helpful. Those tend to be a little broader in what you can use the funds for.
You know, as a small business or any business, you basically have this pie. And every government agency – local, state, federal, even food delivery services - everybody wants a piece of your pie. And you're like pretty much left with nothing.
So, really, all we can do is depend on our community. And, we’re so fortunate that we have this great community to support us.
As a community, we’ve talked a lot about how difficult is to say goodbye to businesses that don’t make it through COVID. But, for you, you’ve had to say goodbye to your parents - so have your customers. In what ways have you worked through this loss with your customers?
It’s hard because we only have these 20 second bursts to talk with our customers. We catch up with them when they're picking up food. They want to talk but it’s hard.
It’s actually the one time I’m OK with the no hugging rules because, you know, hugs always make you cry. It would be so hard to hug everybody right now.
It's funny because I have been inside my own grief, but then I realized, wow, so many people also had relationships with her.
We're trying to think about some sort of more public memorial or open house or something, in a year or so, depending on where we're at with this.
What is the legacy you hope to leave behind for your mom?
My husband and I are thinking about it in a couple different ways. We want to do something to honor her.
On one side, we’ve been thinking about is how important it was to our mom for kids to go to college and get their educations. And, at Kona, the people who come in there are our family – whether they’re customers or employees. We just care for everybody and we want them to be successful. And, what we've seen over my years there is that so many kids and families do not have any financial education. No one's taught them about money, savings and finance. And that's one of the things that my mom passed to me and which we try to help our employees learn - to save and prepare for their future. We’ve talked about starting a foundation in her name, so that we could offer a few scholarships every year.
We’ve also been thinking about food. You know, throughout the pandemic, everyone has been working to feed first responders. We have a good friend, who has been coming to Kona since we opened, and she's a nurse at Harborview. She has been saying, how it's so amazing that everyone's been trying to feed them. But, she’s also grateful that she’s still working, still getting a paycheck and still able to buy food. What about the people who have lost their jobs or who are on the verge of losing their house? They probably need a meal more. So we’ve also been talking about finding ways to reach out to just families in need and provide meals for them.
There’s a lot to think through. But, for us, we want to move forward and find a way to give back to the community. I think that would honor her.
Hey, Seattle, here's how you can help!
Order take-out from one of Kona Kitchen's location
Follow them on social media, to see how they move forward in honoring Elizabeth Mar