HONOLULU(KHON2) — The former Monterey Bay Canner’s spot at Pearlridge Center has been sitting empty for nearly two years. Now a new tenant is taking over. Here’s what the future may hold for other large vacant restaurant spaces.

Dozens of Hawaii restaurants closed during the pandemic with many of the larger spaces still vacant.

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Real estate consultant Stephany Sofos said the future of larger restaurants looks bleak.

“Historically, restaurants used to get bigger and bigger. It was kind of like department stores,” Sofos explained. “But going forward, it’ll be smaller. It’ll be more interesting. It’ll be more maybe consumer-driven definitely in taste. And it’ll be fun, but it’ll be smaller.”

She said some large spaces may be split in two or converted into food courts. But that isn’t always the case.

The 7,500 square foot location, formerly occupied by Monterey Bay Canner’s, is set to reopen at Sakura, a Japanese sushi and teppanyaki restaurant.

The owner, Shifeng “Allen” Zhang, said it will be their fifth and largest Sakura restaurant in the state. Zhang said he expects the restaurant to open once renovations are completed in the summer of 2023.

As the spaces are filled with new tenants, Ryan Tanaka, the Restaurant Association’s incoming chair, worries Hawaii will lose its unique island feel.

“We’re seeing a lot of these larger vacancies get backfilled. But unfortunately, they’re getting backfilled in many cases by national chains,” Tanaka said. “You’re seeing others that are coming in, you have Sakura restaurant, they already have a footprint somewhere else. So you lose that, that single mom-and-pop-shop feel.”

Cost is the biggest issue in running a restaurant. Tanaka said external factors like rising inflation, global supply chain issues, the labor shortage and the rise in minimum wage make it harder to stay afloat.

Ryan Tanaka, Restaurant Association incoming Chair: when two to three years comes up, and you’re thinking about renewing your lease, it’s very, it’s a very difficult decision to make.”

Rodney Villanueva opened Celebrahtees’ in Pearl City at the old Buzz’s Original Steakhouse location in the midst of the pandemic. The two-story, 5,300 square foot location boasts an amazing view of Pearl Harbor.

Villanueva said he used to be open seven days a week but he had to cut his days down to five. Finding reliable workers is still the biggest challenge he faces.

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“I’m doing all the cooking and sometimes I come out take your order if the one waitress is overwhelmed then I help her out,” he said. “Then of course I bus the tables and wash the dishes. I got to do everything.”