After college in Atlanta and a career in restaurants and graphic design in New York, Chuck Bussler moved to Hawaii in 2015. That’s where his wife, chef Robin Mai’i, is from, and together they opened Fête, bringing a dedicated farm-to-table ethos to Honolulu. After getting through a daunting 2020, the biggest challenge of 2021 arrived quickly: in February of last year they both came down with COVID. But the rest of the year played out surprisingly well, with business steady and serious wines finding their way to tables—even if half the tables were outside.
What was this year (2021) like in Honolulu? Were you able to be open for indoor dining most of the year?
2021 played out a lot less painfully than 2020. We were allowed to be open for dine-in the entire time. For us, we had 50% indoor occupancy with six feet of social distancing between tables. They also created outdoor dining areas like those little parklets New York had. For our area, we were allowed to put tables on the city sidewalks, and we were able to serve out there. The tables we had to take out of dining indoor ended up being the tables that were outdoors. So, we didn’t lose table occupancy.
But we did lose some of our seats at the bar and our chef’s counter area. So, we were probably at 90% of our normal seats.
There were a couple of odd moments. At the beginning of Delta for us, sometime in July…or actually it was around Labor Day, our governor asked tourists not to come for a while. And people actually listened, which was amazing! So, tourist numbers went down a lot, but we’re not mostly a tourist restaurant. We’re not part of a “tick off the seven things you want to do on Oahu” list.
Then Omicron hit, and that affected us a tiny bit, but more because of disruption for staff. To dine with us you had to be vaccinated or have a 48-hour negative test. For our staff, everyone who had a booster didn’t get Omicron. Everyone who was vaccinated but didn’t get the booster got Omicron. For a few weeks we had my wife and three other people handling the entire kitchen.
Now our case counts are almost down back to where they were before Omicron.
What is the craziest thing that happened at Fête this year?
Right before we got our vaccines, we were being tested every day, because of having the Obamas at the restaurant. Then, right after I talked with you [last year], somebody was telling me the hand sanitizer they had smelled bad. And I was like: I don’t smell anything at all.
I went right to the walk-in and tried to smell some of the herbs we had in there. I couldn’t smell anything. I immediately handed someone the keys and said: Okay, I’ll see you later. So, Robin and I both lost our sense of smell and she was hit very hard, bed-ridden for a week and a half.
For me, for the wine side of things, that was very odd. When it started to slightly come back after about 3 months, like with a Malin+Goetz lotion, I could smell the lotion but not the citrus scent in it. And then I got my second Moderna shot at the end of April, and the next day I was walking the dog and I could smell all the flowers in the yard blooming. It went from 5% to dialed all the way up, like 95%.
And it’s been that way ever since. I almost think I have a better sense of smell than I used to on some things. Some other things can be a bit confusing at first. Almost like I had to retrain my brain for some of this. But from that time period, from the end of February through March and April, I couldn’t go taste anything. So, it was just: Keep buying the things I know, until this passes…
You noticed last year, in 2020, that people were tending to buy more expensive wines, maybe because they weren’t going out as much. Did that hold true this year as well?
For us, we’re a restaurant that some people treat as a special event, and other people treat like a place where you eat three times a week. But everybody seemed to have a fair amount of flexibility with their spending. The $70 bottle of three years ago became the $130 bottle this past year.
I also noticed that we had people coming and renting a house for like six people, and they all worked for a creative team at an ad agency out of whatever city, and stayed here for three months, and they all wanted to spend some money. So once a week you’d have a household like that come out, and they’d buy the nice Mascarello Barolo or something like that.
How does the size of the list compare to pre-pandemic levels?
Right now, it’s a little bit bigger, just a tiny bit. When we talked last year, we were in the “build back” phase of our list, and now our list is the biggest it’s been. And we have more wines not on our list that we’re trying to get some age on, like the 2019 Burgundies that came in and stuff like that.
Although, recently, we popped a few of these much, much younger Burgundies, and they are ready to go right out of the bottle. The other day we opened up a Méo-Camuzet Clos Vougeot 2018, and it was maybe going to get a tiny bit better over the next a year or two, but it was ready to go. The Paola Beas and things like that still seem so tight, but most of the 2018 and 2019 [from all over Italy and France] were ready to go—it’s everywhere. Everything except those Klingon blood wines, like sagrantino. I think it’s the warmer weather.
Distribution—what are things like these days? Does it seem like your go-to distributors mostly been able to manage the financial and supply chain issues brought by COVID?
I think, small to large, they’ve all struggled with: Where’s our stuff? Southern was out of spirits like Wild Turkey, things you never run out of. That’s like running out of M&Ms or something. If you are a place that had to have a specific thing, you probably had the most frustration. But we run our wine program like we run our food program: If we can’t get this, we get the other thing.
And when we did find something we loved, we bought as much of it as we could.
Tell me about the Fongoli wine that made your top spot. What about that wine connected with people?
It’s a very easy-drinking—it feels like a table wine but that’s not the right word. The acid level is high, it has the right amount of freshness. It just feels like a living wine that pairs so well with food. It pairs with almost everything. The only thing it didn’t work well with is something were you want a little sugar, like with foie gras. We had the Rosso, which was the sangiovese/montepulciano blend.
Have you found new ways either to sustain your customer loyalty or to promote to your loyal customer base?
We just stuck with the way we do things. At the end of 2020, a couple of big, longtime restaurants here closed, and when they did, it galvanized people to support the places they love. And we were fortunate to be the recipients of a lot of that love. And things didn’t really drop off at any point in the year. So, the questions were more like: do we buy all of the SKUs of Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey this year or not?
We’re just adding wines and balancing out our wine list with things that make sense. We want to have appropriate wine inventory and appropriate cost, but we’re not hamstrung. Sure, we want that Corton-Charlemagne. How many have you got?
And it’s allowed us to partner up and help other causes. We worked with Mad Bene [an Italian restaurant in Kapolei] for Taste of America, the James Beard dinner series. And we just donated our money from that evening to local food groups.
So in that sense, while we don’t feel regular in our skins because we have to wear masks and check vaccine cards, at least from the amount of business Fête is getting, we do feel regular with that.
Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.
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