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Style & Living Top Chef

Lee Anne Wong on the "Hellish Limbo" of Owning an Eatery Amid COVID-19

"Small businesses don't need another loan or payment deferral, we need a bailout," the Bravo's Top Chef alum wrote. 

By Abby Feiner
Leeanne Wong Restaurant Update

As the world changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re examining how restaurant owners and the extended Top Chef family are adapting to new protocols and procedures and what’s next for their business in our series, Restaurant Report.

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UPDATE: After Gov. David Ige officially signed off on a two-week stay-at-home-order for Oahu, Lee Anne announced on August 26 that Koko Head Café will be closing temporarily. “Today will be our last day of dine-in service for Koko Head Café. We will be doing take-out throughout the weekend, but after that we will be closing temporarily, hopefully,” she said in an Instagram video. “It’s a scary time, we want everybody to stay safe, we definitely want our employees to stay safe, so we’re definitely shutting down also for their health and safety as well.”

Original story continues below:

When Lee Anne Wong recently stepped into her Honolulu restaurant, Koko Head Cafe, amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, she was grateful for a bit of familiarity.

“While it has changed and we have lost about 20% of our seating, the energy and vibe are still full of aloha so that made me feel good,” Lee Anne told via email. “And the kitchen team is still cranking out delicious food.” 

However, that is where the normalcy ends for the Bravo’s Top Chef alum and her team as the global health crisis continues. Adhering to World Heath Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and state recommendations since reopening for take-out and dine-in services, “our entire staff are in masks, including in the kitchen,” Lee Anne explained. “We have rearranged our dining room layout with social distancing measures as well as plexiglass in several areas. We are constantly sanitizing the entire restaurant throughout the day.” 

In addition to adding outdoor tables and a QR code for the in-house menu, Lee Anne is also asking guests to keep masks on while engaging with staff members and for staff to take temperatures at the door.

The added health and safety measures have unfortunately coincided with notable losses at Koko Head Cafe.

“The menu itself has shed a few items, focusing only on our top sellers and daily specials as well as expanding our baked goods lineup,” Lee Anne said. “Our staff is also leaner and we've shortened our business hours during the weekdays. With another potential shutdown on Oahu looming, we have to be ready to pivot again towards take-out only and get creative with our offerings.”

After initially reopening with take-out services, Lee Anne told Honolulu in March that hers, along with many businesses offering only take-out and delivery, was “basically operating at an 80% loss." As she explained to, “The pivot to take-out only solves a few simple problems but financially can't cover the losses of a busy dine-in service.” Now, as the eatery is once again open for dine-in services and taking reservations for the first time in six years to help with crowd control, Lee Anne shared that Koko Head Cafe is “barely breaking even.” Still, she noted, that is “better than most.” 

“Everything is in limbo right now," she added. "We feel very lucky to be able to operate and hope that the community can get it together in terms of personal responsibility to help quell the sudden increase in cases.” 

With so much uncertainty, operations will continue to be drastically altered at Koko Head Cafe. “We really have to change the way we do business without relying on visitor income, at least in the immediate future,” Lee Anne said. “Our PPP loan has been crucial, but what restaurants really need right now is rent relief.” 

In July, Lee Anne took to Instagram to show her support for a Hawaii business coalition seeking $100 million in city grants to benefit commercial property landlords and tenants, declaring at the time: “This may be one of the most important things we fight for.” Elaborating to, Lee Anne explained why the need for rent relief is so dire for small businesses.

“At the end of the day, everyone has financial responsibilities and obligations, most times including the landlord,” she wrote. “However, as in most commercial leases, the landlord will be made whole again because of the financial guarantees in the lease and many small businesses have put up their personal wealth to bankroll their operations. So for some, absolutely everything is riding on the success of their business.”

“In short, small businesses have complied with the closure or take out only mandates, while still investing [money] for PPE per the state, and yet there is no safety net or bail out for rent for the time the business was closed, and are now being told to operate at 50% capacity,” she continued. “The state needs to take a look at how they can provide financial relief to the landlords to prevent more evictions and permanent closures. Small businesses don't need another loan or payment deferral, we need a bailout.”

While Lee Anne emphasized that a bailout is crucial, she also noted the importance of consumers supporting restaurants in any way they are able.

“There are over 15 million restaurant workers in the U.S., which makes up 10% of the workforce. You probably know someone who works in the industry and has been negatively impacted by [COVID-19],” she said. “Most hourly workers in this industry live paycheck-to-paycheck as is, so it's super important to continue to support small businesses, whether it's dine-in, take-out, gift cards, or merchandise. Restaurants are hanging by a thread right now.”

For those choosing to dine at restaurants or opt for take-out, Lee Anne had a few important reminders.

“One, wear your mask. Most businesses are requiring a mask for service.  Employees are all in PPE and this is to protect you as well as themselves and their coworkers,” she wrote. “Two, be patient, be kind. Most restaurants are operating with limited staff. Understand that your food may take slightly longer than usual. Three, restaurant workers are risking their own health and safety to make sure their restaurant stays open, you can eat, and they have a job. Keep that in mind, as customer service goes both ways and everyday stressors seem that much more dramatic during this pandemic. Again, refer to No. 2.” 

Lee Anne is also the executive chef at The Pioneer Inn in Maui, which she says looks starkly different from Koko Head Cafe amid the pandemic. “Oahu and Maui are like night and day. Lahaina itself is a town that is pretty much 90-100% visitor dependent and it's always packed,” she explained, before quipping: “To see it as a ghost town the past few months has been both unsettling and peaceful at the same time.” 

In addition to her two restaurants, Lee Anne has also continued working as the executive chef with Hawaiian Airlines. Although she is no longer traveling, she is "currently working with our culinary division to change in-flight meal services to be more COVID safe,” she explained.

As many restaurants struggle to remain open, Lee Anne doesn’t see the industry returning to the pre-pandemic way of operating any time soon. “I think we are in the new normal and it's here to stay unfortunately,” she said. “We will be in this hellish limbo for a little while.”

Still, Lee Anne is excitedly looking at what’s to come. “I'm in Lahaina with a newly renovated restaurant space yet to debut (we are serving in our courtyard),” she said. “Giving The Pioneer Inn a facelift has been our big project and we are eager to utilize the space once tourism returns.” 

“I've also decided I may work on a Koko Head Cafe cookbook later this year,” she said, quipping: “Because I don't have enough on my plate.”

Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio is another vocal advocate for restaurant industry support amidst the pandemic. For the latest, most accurate information on the coronavirus pandemic, go to the World Health Organization (WHO) website. 

Tom Colicchio on the Future of Restaurants Post-Quarantine

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