As West Maui prepares for the return of tourism on Oct. 8, restaurants and businesses are adjusting to the ongoing need of residents while also gauging services for visitors.
Since Aug. 10, Chef Peter Merriman and his team have fed thousands of displaced residents impacted by the fires, giving free meals to 1,000 people daily and serving approx. 45,000 meals in the first seven weeks of response.
The Merriman’s Hawaiʻi restaurant group has eight locations across the islands, including Monkeypod Kitchen by Merriman’s in Kāʻanapali and Merriman’s in Kapalua, which were physically untouched in the fire, but 80 of 300 employees lost their homes.
Seeing an immediate community need, both West Maui locations temporarily closed in the wake of the fires, and shifted efforts on food distribution and community needs instead.
“Our fellow Mauians didnʻt have a place to eat. Right from the get-go we had 900 people on the first day, and 1,000 people every day after that,” Chef Merriman said in a phone interview with Maui Now.
In the initial days of response, distribution was established at the front of Whalerʻs Village and at the Merriman’s restaurant in Kapalua. Several hundred meals were also being delivered to families in need who were unable to leave their homes or access distribution locations.
The restaurant group teamed up with the Salvation Army because of the organizationʻs expertise in distribution efforts.
“I think that people who are fortunate enough to be a business owner on Maui have a certain responsibility to the community. I feel a responsibility that we’re in a position to help people. I feel required to offer that help,” Merriman told Maui Now.
The Merriman’s restaurants have been providing the service through their own efforts with the help of private donations and purveyors like Rimfire which has donated food. On one day in particular, a fisherman dropped off 300 pounds of ahi (tuna) for the Merriman’s distribution. Iron Horse, which runs refrigerated trucks, also donated their services to the effort when there was no power in West Maui.
The restaurant set up a sign-up on their merrimanshawaii.com website for volunteers to help or donate to the effort.
In addition to meals, Merriman’s established free Starlink WiFi access at the 6,000 sqft. Merriman’s Kapalua location from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The efforts at Merriman’s Kapalua are led by Valerye Zimmerman, director of special operations for Merriman’s Restaurants, who was among those who lost her own house in the wildfires.
At the end of September, there were nearly 8,000 residents being housed in 40 Red Cross locations across Maui, many of them at hotels. As of Oct. 5, Gov. Josh Green reported that there were 6,825 people being housed in 34 hotels on Maui through the Red Cross non-congregate shelter program. The drop comes as a concerted effort is underway to transition displaced residents into longer-term rentals.
Economists are not anticipating a rush to travel, but a gradual recovery instead, according to a 2023 third quarter economic forecast released by the University of Hawaiʻi Economic Research Organization.
As Maui prepares for the reopening of tourism, Merriman said there are a few things to keep in mind for those returning to visit. “The main thing is that the burn area is not an attraction. Donʻt take pictures and donʻt hang around to look at the burn area,” he said.
He encouraged visiting businesses and locations that are open. “It’s fine to go to the rest of Maui because 95% of Maui is unscathed. Not only is it fine to go there, but we want you to come here and we want you to spend money because everybody needs it—all these people that have been impacted by the fire anyway are also out of a job and would like to start earning money again,” said Merriman.
He said the number one difference between previous incidents like 9/11 and COVID versus the West Maui fire was the world-wide impact. “This was so incredibly localized,” Merriman said of the Lahaina wildfire, which is considered the deadliest US fire is the past century.
“We sensed it right from the very beginning that for the relief people to get here is at least going to take a couple of days,” said Merriman. “Thatʻs one of the reasons we shot into action so quickly, because we were able to start feeding people before Operation BBQ Rescue or World Central Kitchen was even on the island,” he said.
Merriman said the recovery from this incident will also be very different from previous crisis situations. “The infrastructure has been altered and our employees lost where they lived. So many restaurants burned down and are no longer in service. We donʻt understand what that does yet to the supply of restaurant seats for the number of guests that are here at the time. It’s different in a lot of ways,” he said.
Many credited community members for initial response and local businesses and residents like Merriman that stepped forward in the early days of the disaster.
“I think the community efforts have been unreal. I think itʻs a shame there was some misinformation out there. Early on, people were talking about looting. There was very little looting, if any, mostly I think 98% of the people have been really, really good actors throughout this situation… Overall I think West Maui has really risen up and shown itself. The sense of aloha continues even in crisis,” he said.
Chef Peter Merriman is known as a pioneer of Hawaiʻi Regional Cuisine and his restaurants uphold the motto, “Do the Right Thing.” Merriman said he hopes these small acts of kindness bring the Island a step closer to recovery.