Thomas Ray, a partner at Downtown Honolulu's Square Barrels, knew he was in trouble. Business was down 80%, he'd taken no salary from the time all Hawaii restaurants closed their dining rooms in March until his emergency small business loan came through, and he'd had to furlough nearly all of his 18 workers. Then he went for a walk. "There was a line for a chain restaurant like 10 people deep. Right across the street is a small restaurant selling the same thing. I know the owner, he has a young family. It just is heartbreaking that the local mom-and-pop proprietors have an 80 percent chance of not surviving this crisis and 43 percent of breweries will not survive," Ray says.
That's when it hit him. Local businesses had to speak up. Two months into a protracted shutdown that's already forced restaurants like Like Like Drive Inn to permanently close, Ray launched a "Be vocal, support local" campaign. It's simple: People can buy T-shirts or racerbank tank tops with the slogan. The shirts remind them to spend their takeout dollars at locally owned eateries and spread the message every time they wear them and use the #savehawaiisbusinesses hashtag on social media posts showing their favorite dishes.
"Literally this is about changing people's mindsets," Ray says. "Trying to get people to realize they have a choice to make. There’s nothing wrong with corporate restaurants and large chains, but right now mom-and-pops need your help the most because we don’t have the ability to negotiate with landlords like a large chain and we don’t have access to capital besides PPP loans. I can’t go to a bank and just get another million dollars, whereas a large corporation with thousands of employees is able to navigate this crisis a lot more efficiently than I can."
Ray's statistics on potential closures come from member surveys by the James Beard Foundation and the Brewers Association. He volunteers his time collecting orders for the shirts, gets no cut of the $10.01 cost, and arranges for payment and pickup at Square Barrels. He's planning social media promotions to keep the message alive, starting with a #savehawaiisbusinesses simultaneous posting by supporters this Sunday, June 6 at 6 p.m.
"These businesses do so much more than sell food. They provide charm. If you’re having a bad day you get your favorite plate lunch. If I’m feeling bad I’ll get my favorite meat jun from Kim Chee II on Waialae. These are people that are going to live here and reinvest in the community," he says.
"If you have the means to go out and support restaurants, please just choose a local independent restaurant."