The challenges of opening a restaurant when the city is closed.
Veteran restaurateur Kevin Aoki, who owns the Honolulu eateries Doraku and Blue Tree, opened his latest spot, Qing Mu on March 12, when people were already starting to curtail their eating adventures. Six days later, Mayor Kirk Caldwell signed a proclamation mandating all restaurants and bars to close by March 20 for sit-down service. The new Kaka‘ako restaurant, on the corner of Ala Moana Boulevard and Keawe Street, in the Collection condo, didn’t skip a beat.
“I felt we could offer quick service, takeout—I wanted to get the ball rolling even through this pandemic,” says Aoki. In addition, he kept his whole operation in Hawai‘i open. “I kept paying to keep everything open and retain my staff. We’ve re-engineered and become better equipped for takeout and delivery.”
Qing Mu, the first Hawai‘i branch of a concept Aoki developed in Atlanta, is what he calls “a really simple Vietnamese noodle shop.” The concise menu—pho, banh mi (seven kinds), vermicelli bowls, pork broth Meking noodle soup, and, course, spring rolls—is overseen by Dien Vu, whose family owns Vietnamese restaurants in Chinatown. The offerings are familiar, but offers a couple twists, such as a banh mi made with thinly sliced A5 Mizayaki Wagyu (though it’s not included on the online menu at the moment).
Though Qing Mu isn’t profitable as a takeout-only spot at the moment, Aoki does see an upside to opening up during lockdown. “It’s definitely worth keeping open—it gets people excited, employees get used to new menu, we can refine our operation to make a better product.”
However, progress of Aoki’s more ambitious next-door project, 1838 Indochine, has slowed down. The evocative space channels old Saigon—it’s filled with antique Vietnamese tiles and vintage shutters from Indonesia—and Aoki was all set to bring in Khim Nghia Ta, the Paris-based chef who opened the New York institution Indochine (Aoki hung out at the 1980s hotspot when he was a student at New York University). The pandemic put the kaibosh on a visa for the chef and now Vu chef is working on 1838’s Vietnamese-focused menu, with Khim consulting remotely. Aoki is now looking at a summer opening.
“You never know what will happen, but if you’re able to adapt and keep strong and keep the energy going, you’ll survive and be successful.”
One thing that makes calling the shots on the two new restaurants easier is the fact that Aoki is not beholden to a landlord. When he signed the lease with The Collection developer Alexander & Baldwin, he had the option to purchase the land (thanks to city building permits making the restaurant project drag of for two years). “It so happens we closed on it the week before the pandemic. It was kind of a godsend that it happened.”
Has he learned any long-term lessons from the pandemic? “I can only think that success happens when you’re able to adapt to situations,” Aoki replies. “As Stephen Hawking says, intelligence is the ability to adapt to change. And I believe that success is the ability to adapt. You never know what will happen, but if you’re able to adapt and keep strong and keep the energy going, you’ll survive and be successful.”