Saipan Correspondent

KOBLERVILLE and GARAPAN, Saipan — After a period of closure and take-out only operations due the COVID-19 pandemic this past couple of years, restaurants on Saipan are facing a slew of new challenges.

The increased cost of doing business due to rising prices of food items, utilities, and wages has led players in the food industry in Saipan to adjust prices to reflect new realities.

Zaabder Thai Restaurant announced Sept. 1 it would raise its prices due to inflation.


“Our main purpose is to serve delicious affordable food to everyone from different economic backgrounds. When the inflation started, we tried our best to balance our expenses and hoped for the operational costs to slowly decrease, but it has been hiking up through the weeks. Therefore, we had to make a very difficult decision to increase our prices in order to keep the business running,” said Monita Paul, co-owner of the Thai restaurant in Koblerville.

She said, so far, customers have been understanding and quite supportive of the decision. “We are trying our best to balance out our costs and earnings, but it has been super hard for us as a small family business, but we have to keep persevering and tackling any obstacle we may face to continue serving great food,” Paul said.

BAB Korean Restaurant on Beach Road in Garapan already increased its popular Korean BBQ buffet from $19.99 to $21.99 late last year.


“We started at $18.99 in 2020 but when the cost of ingredients kept rising, we decided to increase it to $21.99, especially since it’s a buffet,” said Dante Conlu, who handles marketing and promotions for the restaurant. He said they’re holding off on a price increase for their Korean BBQ buffet, which now comes inclusive of bottomless soda, despite the cost of frozen meat product increasing by 50% in the past several months.

Conlu said the restaurants just breaking even on its Korean BBQ buffet and that the drive-thru Cup BAB outlet is the offering making money for the restaurant.

Even the oldest Japanese restaurant in Saipan isn’t immune from being forced to raise menu prices.


Kinpachi Japanese Restaurant owner Misako Kamata said due to inflation, they’ve raised the prices of about 20% of menu items this year.

“First, we try to minimize. We try to fight those increases and not give to the customer yet and try to absorb the cost ourselves as long as we can,” she said. Only if [ingredients] are going up maybe we can do it. But not only that —right now gas and power/utilities, and manpower costs [are increasing] too because of the prevailing wage.”

Misako said loyal patrons understand. “In general, our customers understand our small increase in menu items. Even at their homes they experience a rise in utilities and in their daily shopping.”

Restaurants oi Saipan are also dealing with supply issues, with Kamata forced to strike out some seafood items like Korean oysters and scallops from Kinpachi’s menu altogether.

“Difficult to get shipping out of China because we have to compete against China, Vietnam, and Singapore where there’s high demand for seafood. They buy by volume and higher price… Volume is just too small in the CNMI [to compete],” she said.

Paul said the Thai restaurant has dealt with its fair share of supply issues. “We do experience supply shortages. However, we try our best to notify our patrons of the shortage and advise them of better menu options if they prefer,” she said.

Conlu said BAB Restaurant hasn’t really experienced a major shortage of meat products or ingredients used in the buffet. The supply problems they’ve so far encountered is for packaging items, especially those used for take-out dishes.

Businesses in the NMI are also facing the challenge this fiscal year of the implementation of the touchback rule by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The rule affects certain CNMI-Only Workers who are required to exit the NMI for 30 days before employers can apply for their renewals.

Conlu said BAB Restaurant only has one staff member affected by the touchback rule and she will soon marry her U.S. citizen boyfriend.

Three of Kinpachi’s staff may have to return to their countries of origin for at least 30 days because of the new rule, Kamata said. “We’re switching to local hiring and even long-term [residents]. But we like to keep our CWs because they’re very important to our company,” she said.

While Kinpachi is willing to hire residents without experience and train them, she said, “The problem with local hiring is attendance. Maybe you hire five locals, but eventually only one will stay for the long run.”

Paul’s brother, Rashan, manager of Zaabder Thai Restaurant, said the restaurant is not affected by the touchback rule as all their staff are either U.S. citizens or long-term residents.

As for what the future holds, Kamata is not really holding her breath on the salvation business owners are supposed to get from the return of tourists with the return of the United Airlines Narita-Saipan flights.

“For the Japanese, it takes time to recover and go abroad. They’re not ready to go out yet… Now, they’re just traveling domestically because the government has given them a travel stimulus,” she said. As of now it appears that the Japanese that do take the new United flights are what many on Saipan call ‘returning customers.’”

Established in 1980, Kinpachi is the oldest Japanese restaurant in Saipan.
Photo by Mark Rabago

Japanese returnees are also few in number, she said. “That’s the people now here, not new visitors yet,” she said.

Conlu said while he hopes they do get Japanese tourists back in numbers, their primary market primarily is still local.

Kamata hopes that Japanese tourists will return in droves next year, but said she believes that depends on COVID-19 regulations.

“The government still requires tourists to be vaccinated and at least [to have] one booster, but children cannot have boosters yet. The Japanese mentality also is still observing the situation too, as the world adjusts to a new normal [with the COVID-19 pandemic] still with us,” she said. Thee Japanese Yen and U.S. dollar exchange also doesn’t favor Japanese tourists now, she said.

Located along hotel row in the heart of the tourist district in Garapan and operating since 1980, Kinpachi has experienced before the ebb and flow of tourists.

Since the pandemic began Kamata already shuttered Kinpachi’s outdoor barbecue outlet and while Kinpachi Seafood is still open, the name changed as there is not a lot of seafood on its menu. Kinpachi has also reduced hours of operations, which before were from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. or 11p.m. Now, the restaurant operates around mealtimes from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. mbj