'Frustrated' Waipahu restaurant owners call rail reason for shutdown

(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

WAIPAHU, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - For 17 years, Kristen's Kitchen sold plate lunches and meals at its Waipahu restaurant.

"You could get anything. Soup, to nuts, ahi katsu, very high end, spicy calamari stir fry, loco moco, hamburger steak, beef stew," Lynn Elisala said.

In January of 2015, construction on Honolulu's rail project moved into the area, setting up shop in front of their Farrington Highway eatery and making it hard for customers to access the restaurant.

Daily earnings plummeted from $1,000 to $200.

Russel Elisala says that 2015 was supposed to have been the business's breakout year. He and his mother had worked their way up to four operating food trucks, in addition to the brick and mortar restaurant. The rail project turned optimism into angst.

"By five or six months out, Russel and I looked at each other and said, 'We just think we can't make it,'" Lynn Elisala said.

Their only hope was a $2 million fund that the city says was set up for businesses hurt by rail construction.

"We could have taken our restaurant, taken our entire business, and moved locations," Russel Elisala said.

While they tried to figure out how to get help, they did everything they could to stay afloat, laying off staff, maxing out personal credit cards and draining retirement funds.

In November 2015, Kristen's Kitchen closed down.

The Elisala's were frustrated to learn that the mitigation money could not be used for any business, because the City Council put the $2 million dollars in the HART budget.

"Had that money gone in and been funded into the rail mitigation fund we would have been able to apply for it and we'd still be running," Lynn said.

The City Council is now looking at returning control of the $2 million fund to the city.

"There are some limitations to the fund itself, but I think that is the appropriate vehicle if we really are truly sincere about helping small businesses," Honolulu City Council member Ernie Martin said.

Accessing the fund may still be difficult for business owners. The Council is looking to provide relief from the impact of rail work to property owners in the form of tax breaks.

"We're the little guy, and this is one of the cases where the little guy is getting kicked aside," Russel Elisala said.

Council Budget Committee chairman Joey Manahan said the council hopes to develop a criteria, so that there would be an application process for these businesses.

"Whether it's in the form of a tax credit or some sort of a grant, we're still mulling over that," he said.

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