Honolulu entrepreneurs find benefits to soft economy

Liz Hata-Watanabe
Liz Hata-Watanabe

By Diane Ako - bio | email and Taires Hiranaka

HONOLULU (KHNL) -- It's a tough time for the nation's economy. Economists say the dollar is weak, costs are rising, and in general, people are buying less. With all that bad news, who would want to start a business?

It seems counterintuitive to want to open doors to a new business, at a time when customers are closing their wallets. We wanted to know what would motivate someone to do just that.

Not even a month old, the busy crowd at the new Harbor Court Bistro www.harborcourtbistro.com makes it look like it's been in business for a long time. Owner Liz Hata-Watanabe sat with us to talk about the secret behind her early success. "Any business is a tremendous challenge."

She should know. Hata-Watanabe is the force behind Honolulu's O Lounge nightclub, but her second pregnancy pushed her from the nightclub into the restaurant business. Now five months pregnant with her second son (possibly to be named Kevin III?), she glowed when she explained, "It's much more conducive to be a mommy with a restaurant."

Why now, when many consider the economy weak? University of Hawaii at Manoa economist Gerard Russo, PhD, highlighted benefits to starting a business at a time like this. For instance, he pointed out, if you survive, you'll do great when the economy is booming!

Hata-Watanabe found other positives as well. "You can use it to your leverage to negotiate more than you couldn't do if it wasn't a soft economy."

And, she adds, there's a bigger labor pool. "As opposed to when we started up O Lounge, many more people came to apply, and we used that to our advantage."

Her executive chef Alexio Thomas Corleon designs creative menus, and uses her connections -her family owns food distributor Y-Hata- to keep costs down. Corleon swept his arm across a table laden with fancy dishes and points to a hulking cut of prime rib. "This would be $50 at any other restaurant. We sell it for $32," he proudly proclaimed.

A green papaya and jumbo shrimp salad topped with her mom's homegrown lavender sprigs, and a house made chocolate-habanero ice cream sat tantalizing nearby. "These are some of our more popular dishes," Chef declared.

Hata-Watanabe added, "Our average lunch is $10 and we have incredible portions." So far, the bistro is a hit with the lunch crowd. Hata-Watanabe promised she will continue to work to keep customers coming.

Another Honolulu business that opened this year is Makana Esthetics Wellness Academy, an educational Institution that offers spa services by its students. The owners, Christine Hall and Malia Sanchez, echoed a lot of Hata-Watanabe's sentiments. They said their labor market is bigger because "the closing of Aloha Airlines has brought in a lot of prospective students."

Sanchez continued, "When opening Makana Academy www.makanaacademy.com in January 2008 we had many challenges like any start up business. Two of the challenges we faced were securing a business loan and finding the right location. We were persistent in getting everything the bank requested of us and did a lot of research to find our location.

Payoff: We got a great location that is very close to the soon to be Whole Foods Store. We are two Hawaiian women that are extremely proud of who we are, what it means to be Hawaiian, and have great respect for our people, our land and the importance for great education."

Economist Russo analyzed that situation for us as well. "Spa service is another risky move. Like eating out, that's another luxury service that people can choose to put off. You don't have to color your hair or get a massage," he said. "Just like you don't have to eat out tonight."

The owners of both the spa as well as the bistro would argue otherwise. And, it appears, they have put their money where their mouths are.