KAHULUI - Popular Maui caterer Bernard Paet said he had no choice but to close his Bentos & Banquets shop in Wailuku and consolidate it with his Cupie's Drive-In in Kahului.
"The financial crush really took a toll," Paet said earlier this month. "The costs keep going up. The costs of goods didn't go down."
On Jan. 1, Paet reluctantly shuttered his Bentos & Banquets by Bernard location on North Church Street. Mounting bills and declining business left him with no choice, he said.
Bernard Paet brings out more food to the lunchtime crowd at Cupie’s Drive-In recently in Kahului. The West Kamehameha Avenue location also is home to his other business, Bentos & Banquets by Bernard, which closed its North Church Street location on Jan. 1. He plans to operate the businesses independently.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
"I would have lost my house. I would have lost this business here," he said while taking a break recently outside Cupie's.
Now Paet is cramming together the two businesses that will operate independently, even though they are in the same place. He co-owns Cupie's with his "honey" and partner, Song Colagross. Paet took over Cupie's in 2003. He opened Bentos & Banquets nearly 18 years ago.
Cupie's menu features local-style entrees and plate lunches, and the Bentos & Banquets' menu is what Paet calls a "happy medium" of lighter fare such as salads and popular lunch specials. Items from both menus are available at the West Kamehameha Avenue location next to the Kahului Public Library.
Paet also is still delivering lunch to the working crowd and providing catering services, just as he did in Wailuku. The phone number for Bentos is 244-1124.
"Bentos and Banquets not done yet," Paet said with a smile as he carried his old Bentos & Banquets sign through the Cupie's parking lot. He was trying to find an ideal place to hang it.
Although Paet had to leave the site of his original business, consider him one of the fortunate ones. Maui restaurants and businesses, small and large, have been closing rapidly with the downturn in tourism and the national credit crisis sending shock waves throughout the islands. Unlike Paet, other businesses had nowhere else to relocate.
Nevertheless, moving was difficult for Paet.
"That's my baby," he said of his Wailuku takeout counter and catering kitchen.
Paet said he agonized about moving.
"You don't want to let go. You don't want to tell anybody," Paet said. "I was getting very depressed. I was running out of energy."
Bentos & Banquets became popular in Wailuku for its lunch specials, such as roast pork, Caesar salad and Thai fried chicken.
Over the years, the competition for diners' dollars in Wailuku became more heated. Recent competitors included a food court at the nearby Main Street Promenade and a grill at Uptown Chevron.
"The pie got a little smaller," Paet said.
To try and keep up financially, Paet raised his prices at Bentos three times in nine months. That alone was an unusual move for the businessman as Paet had not raised prices in three years.
Also, a recession is a hard time to be in the restaurant business because people are trying to save money by not going out to eat, he said.
Paet slid further in debt as the economy continued its slide in the past several months.
"The money I owe people; I'm going to pay them," Paet said.
He said he will try to get back on his feet in Kahului, where rent is half what is was at his old Wailuku shop.
Ten employees at Bentos have moved to the new location at Kahului, where they work under the same roof with seven Cupie's workers. But it's likely they won't all be there at the same time as employees' hours will probably need to be cut, unless business goes up, Paet said.
Among the Bentos' staff is Paet's son and cook, Matt. The original cook, Dale Dunkelbeck, also remains on Paet's staff. Paet's 78-year-old mother, Cayetana Paet, still helps with the business.
Paet is optimistic and looking ahead. As he sat in the Cupie's patio recently, he laid out his plans to enclose the open-air dining area and possibly do a "sit-down" restaurant.
He also might tinker with Cupie's menu in hopes of attracting more customers.
The new Zippy's in Kahului has adversely affected Cupie's business, he said.
But things were looking up for Paet recently. Two hours after the lunch crowd made its initial rush on a recent day, Paet still saw customers pulling into the Cupie's parking lot.
"I think it's pretty positive. I still have some loyal customers," he said.
Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.