By: Daniel Tossounian
Honolulu’s downtown business district bordering on China town used to be a bustling hive of activity…before covid. Before the lockdown one could walk by a steady assortment of eateries, coffee and tea shops and convenience outlets, and not break a sweat.
That all came to a scratching halt in March 2020 when the pandemic shuttered all person to person, business activity.
Hoping to imbibe in the simple pleasure of sipping a frothy latte in front of one’s laptop while sitting under a shady canopy became as realistic as obtaining an ice cold, glass of water in the Sahara…a veritable desert indeed and a bane for those who thrive on cafe culture.
However, there is an oasis puncturing the dearth of cafe watering holes in Honolulu’s business district. As one travels on Ala Moana Blvd. just north the Aloha tower anyone who happens to look on the Mauka side will see an ebullient gaggle of coffee drinkers siting under colorful canopies set against a welcome set of double doors with the happy moniker (Local Joes, Coffee Roasters and Cafe) gracing its threshold. At first glance one might think this sight is too good to be true in that there might be a coffee place that will accommodate patrons with tables, chairs and shady awnings.
The only place that offered any semblance of sit down accommodations has been Don Quixote’s common food court , which while charming in its own way is fraught with attendant perils such as flying chunks of bread thrown by elderly ladies presumably at birds but more often than not landing in one’s immediate vicinity , if not directly on one’s person, the ever present shrieking babies whose decibel levels could drown out a 747, not to mention the overzealous security guards whose attention to detail would be better suited on the border between Iraq and Afghanistan.
Upon approaching the said oasis, one might be tempted to doubt its authenticity hoping against hope this was not a cruel desert illusion but was indeed a proper cafe where one would presumably find cafe culture sojourners like oneself whose attention would naturally be directed at an open laptop or tablet quietly sipping a frothy cappuccino while consuming a high-end side entree which would never have the prefix…Mac in front of it.
As it turns out the Oasis was not a mirage. Such is the reality of Local Joe Honolulu rosters, which has a 5.0 rating on trip advisor and number 5 on the foursquare city guide of the fifteen best coffee places in Honolulu.
I sat down with Local Joes owner, Charles Asselbaye an affable and industrious gentleman who can be seen most days working the counter with his sundry employees as well as roasting beans in the machine juxtaposed to the coffee bar.
I wanted to ask how his small enterprise has thus far been able to cope with the onset of the covid pandemic and what his hopes were…and are for the future.
110 Marin Lane, Honolulu, HI 96817 Phone: 808-536-7700 Website:https://www.localjoehi.com/
(Me) Tell me a little about your background: I was born in France, raised in Africa, and educated in the United States, that’s how I like to put it.
(Me) Now your bio online says you were originally an environmental scientist?
I was an environmental scientist at an environmental consulting company in Hawaii.
(Me) But you had the passion for coffee?
Yep, I went back to coffee, I got involved with a partnership on the east side but then left them and started on my own about six years ago…and we’re planning to expand on the West side at the end of the year, Kapolei.
(Me) Even though you were trained in science and this was your career you had a passion for the coffee business?
Yes, I had a degree in economics when I got to Hawaii. I was trying to continue in the coffee business, but Starbucks offered me minimum wage and I had a college degree, so I basically gave it up, but I knew I’d someday get back into it. So, I got a science degree and got into the environment job until I had a chance to get back into the coffee business with a partner and sold it back to them and opened this place about five or six years ago.
(Me) Would you say you were doing alright up until this year?
We were doing overall well. Of course, it wasn’t where I would have wanted it, but we were doing alright. There were other things I was wanting to do to increase revenue, but it was going ok, but of course then came covid.
(Me) Covid-19 came suddenly, almost catastrophically. It brought down the curtain everywhere. I was in New York at the time, and everything shut down, it was almost surreal. What happened to you? Did you shut down?
We never shut down actually. In March we decided to do curbside.
(Me) How did that affect your revenue?
We were down about 70 percent. My three employees basically left, and it was me and my store manager. We reduced our store hours, we did pretty good.
(Me) Did you ever lose hope, like you weren’t going to make it?
Well, I mean no….well opening up a business is stressful enough. But to me I was thinking if it doesn’t work it doesn’t work.
(Me) Well, you know the big chains like Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, they have corporate behind them, they have that back up. You are like a small boat while they’re a big ship.
Well sure I was worried about paying my bills and stuff but there was nothing I could do. You just try your best. You know one thing I did was join a group, a small business support group which was pretty helpful because hear other business owners’ stories.
Ahh there were some people who were in tears about business. There was this one lady literally in tears because she was the one who took over the family business about four years ago and she didn’t want to be the one who lost the family business founded by her grandfather. So yes, that group was fine because it was a basic support group. we mind if exchanged ideas and we did gift baskets and sold online. It kind of gave me an insight about what other people were going through.
(Me) Well, very good. My next question is. What did the government entities do or not do to help you get through Covid-19. Was govt helpful?
Yeah, I have no complaints, the feds did help. I was one of the early ones to apply for a loan and that kind of helped reduce my level of stress a little bit. But what really helped was the city and county assistance which came up with grants that really helped me save my business.
The state however was a joke, I mean nobody I know got the ten thousand dollars. They Mickey moused you around. It was called the, something grants but it was horrible.
(Me) So, you say the city and county were helpful but the state dropped the ball? I submitted everything all my documents, but I got nothing.
(Me) It’s known in old English parlance as the run around…lol
Yeah, it was called the pivot grant but I had to move on.
(Me) But you do feel the city and county were helpful and came through?
(Me) Do you feel loyal customers also helped you get through the hard times of the pandemic? Oh, yea our regulars are there for us whether pandemic or not. We always depend on their support.
(Me) Even more so through these tough times?
(Me) Last question would be what are your hopes for the future for your business and what advice would you give other small business operators or even young people hoping to open up a small business and what advice do you have for others to get their business through a crisis like this pandemic? Well for me Covid really made things worse, as far as cash flow so the advice I would give to young people or even old people who start a business is to have cash flow. You should have at least a third of a year’s cash flow on hand. Four months minimum so you can pay expenses. Otherwise, if something like this, Covid, happens to you, you aren’t goanna make it. So, plan ahead for unforeseeable events. Like what we’ve just been through. Yes, cash flow is the heart and soul of operating your business.