Tough Times For Restaurateurs

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - March 04, 2009
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Kenwei Chong at E&O Trading Company in happier times

When Kenwei Chong called Tuesday to tell me of the closure of his restaurant, E&O Trading Company, I had the sense of loss that countless people are feeling right now. Not that I had a personal tie to the restaurant, but I was moved by the heaviness in his voice when he talked about the hardest part of closing.

“It’s been a great journey,” he said, “but the worst part is letting go the 42 great people that work with us.”

It seems I’m writing this kind of news over and over recently. I never wanted to be a food writer so I could express my opinions on whether a chef knew his Maui onions or not. I always wanted to write about food to promote an industry where I saw passionate people working to create extraordinary experiences.

To me, there’s real joy in the creativity of a great chef and so much satisfaction in watching professionals at work and then being able to share their stories with other people. It’s the passion, the talent and the stories waiting to be told that attract me to the people who dedicate themselves to the food and beverage industry.


Over the years, I’ve made friends with hundreds of bartenders, wine-makers, salespeople, waiters, distributors, farmers and growers, so this current economic nightmare has left me reeling. Like many people, I’m grieving the loss of some very good friends.

I’ve lost count of the number of restaurants we’ve seen close these past 12 months, and I’m sorry to say we haven’t seen the worst.

E&O was hit by a series of impossible obstacles: endless construction at its Ward Centre site making parking and access a problem, decreased foot traffic and a landlord unwilling, or unable, to work with its tenants.

In losing yet another restaurant we’ve lost more than just one more business, as E&O Trading Company was, like many restaurants, associated with numerous charitable projects and fundraising events.

It’s hard to keep a restaurant man down, though.

“If the economy gets stronger I’d certainly think of opening another restaurant,” says Chong. “I love the business.”

That’s a mighty lonely Ryan’s Bar and Grill up there on the second floor of Ward Centre. But both Ryan’s and lower level Kaka’ako Kitchen are destination restaurants, and I have no doubt they will survive their single status until new neighbors move in.

The upside of the poor economy is a determined effort by many restaurateurs to offer unbeatable deals. Far better to have diners filling the restaurant, albeit with reduced profit margins, than to have no one there at all. In a way, you could say there’s never been a better time to eat out.

One of the promotions that’s worth checking out is at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, where a classic menu based on the original dishes served in New Orleans in 1965 is being offered at the fixed price of $39.95. There are three courses with choices of salads or a fabulous seafood gumbo, 8-ounce petite filet, stuffed chicken breast, barbecued shrimp or a daily fish selection. For $10 more you can upgrade to an 11-ounce filet with grilled shrimp, veal chop, 16-ounce rib eye or a lobster tail.

“People are really excited by the menu,” says general manager (Restaurant Row) Don Assam. The promotion was destined originally to run through April, but my guess is it will prove so popular, it will be around a while.

Happy eating!


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