Luana Group Launches Kona’s Newest Restaurant on Ali´i Drive
June 10, 2021, 11:13 AM HST
* Updated June 10, 11:26 AM
The economic devastation of the pandemic has proven particularly hard on the restaurant industry, closing down long-standing local favorites in communities across not only Hawai´i but the entire country.
However, industry space has also been created allowing for the rise of fresh concepts in established markets. The newest such endeavor in Kailua-Kona belongs to Kai Eats + Drinks, which officially opened on Oneo Bay Friday, June 4.
The restaurant, situated on Ali´i Drive in the old Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. location, is the newest addition to the Luana Hospitality Group of eateries/bars, which includes Huggo’s and On the Rocks in Historic Kailua Village as well as Lava Lava Beach Club Waikoloa.
Scott Dodd, co-owner of the Luana Group, said Kai Eats + Drinks has been in the works for approximately two years, noting the company assumed the lease on the location shortly after Bubba Gump’s closed its doors.
“The pandemic didn’t slow down planning too much, we paused for (approximately) 3-5 months,” he said. “We felt Hawai´i would come back strong when it eventually did (come back).”
While the former tenant struggled in its waning years to keep tables booked and barstools occupied, Dodd believes the prime location of the restaurant and his group’s fresh concept will allow Kai Eats + Drinks to soar where its predecessor ultimately floundered.
“I think Bubba Gump’s was very popular, but that time passed. It kind of outlived its concept,” he explained. “I think the location is amazing, directly on the water. There’s a lot of foot traffic.”
“The atmosphere is pretty unique for Kona. We have an industrial, trendy feel inside,” Dodd continued. “The building was very dark before. We took out all the walls on the ocean side and opened it up. It feels nice when you go inside — light and bright. I think it’s going to be a good addition to the dining scene. We offer a menu that has kind of got something for everyone. The food is fresh, we have a great pizza oven and just several unique aspects to the menu (other restaurants in the area) don’t have.”
The menu ranges from freshly caught seafood and an array of specialized dinner entrees to traditional staples like burgers and fish tacos. The tap room offers a selection of 48 beers and a range of Mai Tais, including some made with bourbon aged six years.
Kai Eats + Drinks is open daily from 3 pm to 10 pm. Expanded hours will eventually be incorporated. At that point, the location will begin opening at 11:30 am for lunch as well as early morning for modified breakfast and grab-and-go coffee service.
“We’re trying to get a few more employees,” said Dodd, noting a similar workforce problem that has proven almost universal within the restaurant industry as it tries to return to an end-of-pandemic/post-pandemic normal.
Many former restaurant workers have collected more money on COVID-juiced unemployment than they were making/could make as part of a restaurant or bar staff. Continued reduced capacity based on state and county restrictions, plus tourism still lagging behind pre-pandemic levels despite a significant bounce back in recent months, makes the process of returning to work in a kitchen or behind a bar precarious.
Hawai´i Governor David Ige announced this week that restaurant capacity will be increased to 75% as soon as 60% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated. As of Thursday, June 10, a total of 54% of residents had received both doses of vaccine and made it through the two-week waiting period that follows the second shot before “full vaccination” status is achieved.
“It’s a challenge for sure,” Dodd said. “I think we would be opening for lunch a little sooner if we just had a few more staff. There are a lot of jobs and not enough people that are willing to work.”