BY IVA MAURIN
CHALAN LAULAU, Saipan — Albeit slowly, the Northern Mariana Islands are now seeing a steady rise of at least a 5.5% increase in the number of licensed restaurants since Super Typhoon Yutu hit the islands in 2018.
The number has risen from 197 in 2019 to 208 in 2021, based on the records provided to the Journal by the Division of Revenue and Taxation.
Even the pandemic did not dampen restaurateurs on island, with a 4.5% jump from the 199 licensed restaurants in 2020 to an additional nine last year.
One of these restaurants is Morae Kitchen & Bar, located along Beach Road in Saipan.
Morae is the first business venture of Thomas Kim, who is known in the NMI for his role as former marketing manager for the Marianas Visitors Authority. Born and raised in Saipan, Kim studied Hotel Management in college, and has worked in numerous bars, hotels, and high-end restaurants in Las Vegas, which brought him the passion to open a restaurant of his own.
“This is my home, so I have always wanted to establish a business here,” Kim said.
The restaurant, which opened on Feb. 17, sits on approximately 4,000 square feet of land, and has a 190-person capacity. Morae, which means “sand” in Korean, boasts a sleek modern interior, with pale cream and blue couches, and round-lit accents on its walls mimicking the sun, for a soft beach look.
Kim said it took eight months to plan, construct, and brand Morae. As to why he decided to open the restaurant in the middle of a pandemic, the restaurateur said it was his intention to align with the reopening of the islands to tourists.
“To be honest, I thought that tourism was going to bounce back before the Omicron virus, but unfortunately, this Omicron virus just started happening again. My approach was to pretty much open up a restaurant for the reopening of tourism, for the economic growth here in CNMI.” Kim said.
“Just opening up in the middle of a pandemic itself was a struggle. I was always worried if this would do good or not.” That was his biggest worry, he said.
Last year, the U.S. Small Business Administration provided direct relief to restaurants and food businesses in the Marianas that were badly hit by the pandemic through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, under the American Rescue Plan Act.
“So far, we are okay,” Kim said. “We’re picking up. The locals are liking our restaurant. They really like the ambience and the type of food we’re serving. I know not a lot of restaurants serve the type of menu we’re serving — Asian, Western, and French, but we added in some local favorites as well.”
Morae has nine staff, including Taste of the Marianas and Tinian Top Chef winner chef Samson Tan, who has had three decades of food and beverage, and large-scale hotel culinary experience in the NMI.
Check us out,” Kim said. “We have great staff working here and we’ll make sure that we’ll take good care of you. Enjoy what we have to offer and if there’s anything that we have to fix or improve on, please give us your feedback. I will highly appreciate your feedback.”
The restaurateur said his future plan is to open Morae in multiple locations, including Guam and Korea. As to investing in a small business, Kim’s advice is not to be afraid.
“If you have a vision, stick to your vision. Go along with it. The beginning was the biggest challenge for me but once you open, as you operate day-by-day, you will learn on how the business will run. Keep working and you’ll get there.”
Morae Kitchen & Bar is open daily except Tuesdays, from 11a.m. to 2 p.m., and from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Call (670) 234-4200 for reservations. mbj