BY MAUREEN. N. MARATITA
COVID-19 hit restaurants hard in Guam through 2020 and 2021, whether through Government of Guam COVID guidelines or a lack of foot traffic.
Through 2022, restaurants began recovery mode, but the restaurant industry has been beset by the challenges of inflation — raising costs across the board, and by low visitor arrival numbers.
A group of eight owners of well-established restaurants decided late last year to take their fates into their own hands and form the Guam Restaurateur Collective.
The group and its officers are Brian Artero, CEO of Crave Group, which does business as Lone Star Steakhouse, Crust Pizzeria Napoletana, Proof Bread Shop and Local Bowlz Co., chairman; Darren N. Talai, president of International Dining Concepts, and CEO of California Pizza Kitchen, Beachin’ Shrimp, Pika’s Café, Little Pika’s, Eat Street Grill, and Ban Thai Restaurant, vice chairman; Richard W. Hart, president, Progressive Pies LLC, Pacific Pancakes LLC and Apple Pacific LLC which do business as Applebee’s Grill & Bar, Pieology Pizzeria, Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, IHOP, IHOP Tumon Bay and Maui Taco’s, secretary, and Geoffrey Perez, proprietor and executive chef, Proa Restaurant and Proa Patisserie, treasurer.
The directors of the group are Marcos Fong, managing director of Nakicos Corp., which does business as Chili’s Grill & Bar and Subway Restaurants; Marie N. Guerrero, CEO of Three Squares Restaurant and B&G Pacific; Francis Kenney, president and co-owner of Jamaican Grill Restaurants; and Peter Duenas, owner and corporate chef of Meskla Restaurants.
On Dec. 12, the group wrote to Gov. Lourdes A. Leon Guerrero, Sen. Joe S. San Agustin, chairman of the Committee on General Government Operations, Appropriations & Housing of the 36th Guam Legislature and Melanie Mendiola, CEO and administrator of the Guam Economic Development Authority.
The letter lays out the “struggle to stay open” and the challenges to the restaurant industry in detail, as well as the group’s desires moving forward.
“With double to triple digit percentage increases in the cost of food, power and water, and the tourism arrivals still at less than 14% of pre-pandemic arrivals; Guam’s restaurants are having to endure debilitating circumstances,” the collective said. “Increased operational costs alongside substantially reduced revenue has forced dozens of restaurants around the island to close already. Without your immediate help, dozens more will close in the coming weeks and months; resulting in the loss of hundreds if not thousands of jobs,” the letter said.
The group gave examples of the increased costs of doing business – from produce to utilities and more and spoke of restaurants in the island’s tourism districts experiencing sales declines of as much as 80%.
“While the situation is desperate, the prognosis for Guam’s restaurants is not without hope,” the letter said.
Referring to the LEAP program, the collective wrote “… we believe a similar employment protection program specific to the restaurant industry is direly needed …,” the group wrote. Based on its outreach to “industry, community and political leaders,” the group wrote that such a program will need $20 million. As to funding, the group suggested funding “in equal parts from ARISE funding and the Rainy Day Fund, with the latter to be replenished by separate legislation.”
While discussions are ongoing, no formal response has been received, according to Artero.
He said the group’s members had been in touch with each other during the pandemic and well before that.
“GRC came about organically during the pandemic with dialogue and strategies being shot back and forth amongst our restaurateur group.” The members were continually in touch, “sharing ideas as to how we could survive the challenges,” Artero said. “We shared practices, cost savings measures, concerns about staffing, payroll, procurement and sometimes even ideas on operations with the new rule set that was changing week to week.” The restaurateurs shared news “in terms of programs that were being developed to aid the economy,” he said.
As to a group focused on the restaurant industry, the concept was not new, he said. “The idea has been kicked around with a few of us for a decade, and with the crisis we were facing, it seemed the best time to combine our voices and advocate for our industry in many areas from federal programs to local legislation and compliance requirements.”
According to the letter, the eight leaders represent 1,500 employees and their 5,500 family members.
Although they are competitors in a competitive industry, the members of the collective have strong relationships, Artero said.
“We all have common startup stories. Also, many of us dine in each other’s restaurants when we can get a night off,” he said. “We are in a small community. There is no reason why we cannot get along and, at the end of the day, there is a mutual respect for what each of us has to do to stay on top of their game.”
While the collective has a figure in mind for financial aid, it is not the group’s only aim.
“ … We as an industry are committed to raising the minimum threshold of 60% for payroll to 70%. Our industry is currently the largest employer in the private sector. We view any developing programs as a jobs focused endeavor,” Artero said.
Employees are very much in the group’s mind, he said.
“During the height of the pandemic, our industry had to do everything in our power to keep our employee base intact. Some of these activities were low-margin efforts, but they kept staff working and kept dollars turning,” he said.
“There’s a notion of a responsibility to keep your product and service available for your community. The restaurant industry is vital to Guam’s economy, morale and well-being.” mbj