Even as the state of Hawaii transitions to a “safer-at-home” order that has allowed many businesses in the state to re-open, COVID-19 concerns and social distancing guidelines continue to change the way most businesses operate.

As part of our Local Spotlight series to highlight how COVID-19 is affecting Hawaii businesses, we talked to Justine Lee, manager of PAI Honolulu. She runs the restaurant along with her husband, Kevin Lee, who is also the restaurant’s chef and owner. Through our conversation with Justine, you’ll get a look into the issues facing restaurants in the state of Hawaii, as well as some insights into the innovative solutions they’re developing in response to COVID-19.

Meet Justine Lee: Manager and Owner of PAI Honolulu

Approved Freight Forwarders: Tell us about PAI. What were you doing before the COVID-19 pandemic?

My husband and I opened PAI three years ago. As a chef, it’s his dream come true to own his own restaurant.

The restaurant is chef-driven, and we featured tasting menus as well as fun and creative a la carte dishes—whatever inspires my husband and his team. Everything is made in-house from scratch. We even make our own charcuterie—from grinding the meat to seasoning and aging it for nine months. We also bake our own bread, and we only offered it at the restaurant after my husband taught himself how to make sourdough.

Guests can come in and enjoy an entrée and a couple of drinks or they can enjoy the full chef tasting experience. We have a completely open kitchen and our chefs personally serve our guests at the chef’s counter. A lot of people really enjoy that one-on-one interaction.

Approved Freight Forwarders: And are your patrons mainly tourists or Oahu residents?

A good mix, but we’ll definitely feel the impact of reduced tourism.

Approved Freight Forwarders: How have you been operating since the pandemic?

We’ve always continually adapted our concept to provide the best experience for our guests. Initially, we opened up PAI and only offered set menus, but to be more accessible for regular guests who like to join us a few times a week, we started also offering a la carte options.

We’ve just always had that mindset, which is helping us now because it feels like we had to hit the hard reset button and completely change everything.

When all of this happened in mid-March, we tried to do take-out, but it didn’t work with what we wanted to offer. I talked with Kevin, and he didn’t feel comfortable sending someone home with a hot dish that may sit in their car for an hour, then sit at home for another hour. At that point, what’s the level of quality that they’re going to actually enjoy?

So we shut down completely, and thought, “What can we do that isn’t just going to be a typical ‘order something, we’ll cook it and send it to you?'” We pride ourselves on the experience that we provide for our guests, so we wanted to offer them something above simply ordering take-out.

pai honolulu culinary kit

One of PAI Honolulu’s amazing culinary kits.

My husband has his bachelor’s degree in food science, and he attended culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park. So everything he does has a science-based reason behind it. If I ask him, “Why did you brine this meat for this long?” he has a specific answer for it. We wanted to be able to take that educational component and share it with our guests—involve them in the experience.

Our Culinary Kits were the answer. They make sure you’re able to still enjoy a great experience. The menu changes every week, and, with a pre-order, they’re available for pick up on Saturdays. We prep everything out, but our guests finish the dish at home so they’re able to have a hand in the preparation—without the hassle of having to go to the grocery store. And we include instructional videos with each menu.

Approved Freight Forwarders: And what else do you have to accompany your Culinary Kits?

You can also order wine and champagne, or you can add a loaf of artisanal sourdough bread. We also make our own sauces that we’re going to offer for retail purchase, including our Specialty XO sauce—a Chinese condiment made with dried scallops, shrimp, house-made lupcheong, chili peppers, and garlic—our Spicy Tomato Jam and our Fire Water, a garlic-chili hot sauce.

Approved Freight Forwarders: And what are your thoughts about the future?

Honestly, I’m hoping for the best, but also preparing for the worst. We’re taking it day by day. We’re being 100% transparent with our employees, and I’ve thanked them for their understanding.

When we do re-open for dine-in service, there are many questions: How do we best protect our customers and our staff while providing the experience we want to deliver? Will we need to get plexiglass dividers? What will be the standard for service and server uniforms? As a guest, I know I would be kind of freaked out if a server approached me in a full-on head-to-toe protective suit.

For now, we’re seeing what’s happening and looking at best practices. We’ll adapt them to our situation. There’s just so much to be considered.

I’m grateful for the $10,000 grant that’s coming out. (You can find more details on the City and County of Honolulu Small Business Relief and Recovery Fund on OneOahu.org.) It’s a grant that reimburses you for buying things like dividers and hand sanitizer—things to help small businesses on Oahu implement safety measures against COVID-19. It also helps small businesses with expenses like rent, utilities, and payroll.

There’s always new information coming out on COVID-19, so we’re just trying to prepare the best we can.

Discover More About PAI Honolulu

PAI’s Culinary Kits are available for pickup Saturdays from 3-6 pm. Deliveries are available for designated areas, as well as special orders for parties of six or more. To discover more, visit http://www.paihonolulu.com or email [email protected].

For our next article in the series, we’ll be sharing another story from the island of Oahu. If you’d like to see your business featured—or if you’d like to talk about how working with a freight forwarder can benefit your Hawaii-based business, just reach out to us

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