Chuck Bussler grew up in Athens, Georgia and stayed in that college town to attend the University of Georgia, where he studied painting. “Which means you end up working in restaurants,” he jokes. His restaurant work spurred him to fall in love with wine. After moving to New York, he met another love: his now-wife, chef Robin Mai’i. When she was directing the culinary program at the Art Institute of New York, he began studying graphic design there, and built a career that alternated between graphic design and restaurants. Then, in 2015, he and Mai’i decided to move back to Mai’i’s home state of Hawaii and open a restaurant. Located in Honolulu’s Chinatown, their restaurant Fête emphasizes meats and produce grown, raised and fished in Hawaii, with a wine list that emphasizes benchmark low-intervention producers from around the world, but particularly classical European regions.
Can you give me the rundown of how this year played out for restaurants in Honolulu, in terms of indoor dining, outdoor dining, and complete shutdowns?
From a business perspective, there’s an absolutely dire aspect and a not-so-dire aspect. In Honolulu we were able to open in June for dine-in, with 50% capacity and six feet of separation. Our restaurant is small and we pack it in, sort of like Prune does in New York, so it was harder for us, but then they let us do outdoor seating, so we maybe gained back half of the seats we lost with that. We were closed in August for four weeks when things were totally shut down, but we have been open since September continuously. Some restaurants have pivoted—I hate that word now!—to doing just delivery and takeout. But that idea just depressed the hell out of us, because the hospitality aspect is so much a part of what we do. So we made takeout and delivery work for the short term. But we actually shut down for two weeks this summer to figure out how this will work long-term. One of the few specific stances we took was: I really hate the predatory nature of the third-party food delivery services. They ghost our website all the time and put up old outdated menus, so we actually use our front-of-house staff to deliver. And it becomes part of the tip pool. So doing takeout and delivery is almost like having a section of the restaurant.
We have a lot of friends of the restaurant who have really rallied behind us. We have some guests of ours that haven’t dined out since the pandemic hit, but they order from us once a week or every other week. They’ll order food for the night, but they’ll also order bottles of wine for the week. So we end up having really nice wine sales like this. And we haven’t discounted our wine-to-go either—we’re a restaurant. We’re trying to be mindful of our costs, but we need to make it feel right—like we’re a restaurant in this moment. So people are ordering things like Radio-Coteau and [R. López de Heredia] Tondonia and stuff like that. They’re ordering not based on price, they’re ordering because we have things that they can’t get at their wine store.
The one thing we’ve figured out most, and this is especially true of my wife, is we’ve figured out which wines are great with which anxiety attack you’re having that day…
And we’ve figured out how long Clos Cibonne on draft lasts going through a thing like this. We get the KeyKegs, the Euro plastic kegs, 660 ounces, so 130-something glasses. It’s food-grade nitrogen pushing it. We go through about a keg a week of the Clos Cibonne. We took all our beer (only 3) off draft, and do only cans and bottles of beer now, and put wine on draft. We have the Clos Cibonne, plus a Chéreau Carré Muscadet and a Rémi Dufaitre Beaujolais on draft. We have that as part of our by-the-glass program. Right now, we have 12-13 wines by the glass if you include our skin-contacts and sparklings.
Having worked in the restaurant scene in NY for quite a long time, I can say we are so much better off than they are. It was crazy how much money went out of this restaurant when this first started happening. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went out overnight. But we’ve been fortunate compared to places like NY and SF and LA. Hawaii did a huge lockdown early on, so people have felt more comfortable eating out here than in other places.
Normally for us, our crowd mix-up is 85 percent local, 15 percent tourist, with the majority of that tourist crowd being from Brooklyn, Manhattan, SF, Melbourne, Tokyo, that kind of crowd. We have an interesting Japanese clientèle that’s all about destination dining. And that means a lot of skin-contact natural wine fans! A fair amount of those wines never make it to Japan, so we go through a lot of skin contacts: Gravner and stuff like that. We have that by the glass.
Have you revised your wine list significantly over the past year in any way, to respond to trends you’ve seen during the pandemic?
At first we thought: People are going to be value-conscious going into the pandemic. So I brought in some less expensive wines. And I noticed they weren’t really selling that much, because I couldn’t talk about them like I could talk about the wines I really love. So our wine bottle average has actually gone up.
There’s some bottles of wine we didn’t used to sell much of, and we blow through them now. When we get Selosse, we blow through it. A $200 wine used to be a pretty expensive bottle for us; now it seems like it’s almost average. Plus, there’s a lot of places that haven’t re-opened, especially hotels, and they’re not taking their allocations, so we buy them. Right now there’s 20-30 wines that aren’t even on the list yet.
Your biggest new success is the Dirty & Rowdy Unfamiliar Mourvedre. What’s driving that rather geeky wine?
Honestly, what would have been there instead would have been the Familiar Orange wine if we could have gotten more of that. We had the concrete semillon by the glass for a while and that sold very well. They’re strongly opinionated wines that are just delicious. And he’s pretty experimental. I liken him to a sort of more granola punk-rocky version of Matthiasson or the Alpha Box & Dice people in Australia, willing to go in a lot of different directions.
It’s fascinating that the 2010 R. López De Heredia Viña Cubillo Crianza was your top-selling by-the-glass wine. Is that because your staff was really pushing it, or do lots of people recognize that wine these days, and seek it out? Or are folks mostly intrigued by the age?
Because of the pandemic, everybody got stuck [with wines they had trouble selling]. Our local distributor carried it, and I bought 34 cases of it at a reduced price. López de Heredia, my wife and I, we have mostly similar wine tastes, and that’s one of our all-time favorite producers.
If I come across a very good deal, I want to pass it on, because I want people to see what I see about a wine. And if I can put it on at that price, like $14/glass, it means the world. They’re so old-school and classic that they’re hip and new. They’re basically the person making the mittens for Bernie, is what they are.
One final thing, and I know a lot of my peers have been saying this as well: If you’re making it through this with your business, you’ve probably learned a few new tricks—and things about yourself—that will make you better in the long run. It’s just painful right now. But I’m confident that we’ll come out of this a much better restaurant that we were before.
Longtime senior editor at Wine & Spirits magazine, Luke now works for the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.
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