Restaurant card program ending, considered a success

The state’s restaurant card program comes to an end this week, after residents used it to spend more than $6.5 million at Big Island restaurants alone over two months.

The program, which is administered by the state’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to distribute $75 million in federal COVID relief funds, ends on Tuesday, meaning beneficiaries have a week to use the remaining balance — up to $500 — on their cards.


Program administrator Gwen Yamamoto Lau confirmed in an email that as of Dec. 3, 148,576 cards have been issued statewide since the program was launched in October, with recipients so far spending $52.6 million of the $75 million.

While Lau said the total number of cards distributed in Hawaii County is not available, as of Dec. 3 there have been 177,242 restaurant card transactions on the Big Island since the program began, which collectively spent $6,547,835, about 12% of statewide spending.

The cards have been used at 565 Big Island locations.

“It’s been very good for us,” said Janet Coney, general manager at Kilauea Lodge, who added that the restaurant has seen a significant spike in patrons over the last three weeks, many of whom have used the cards.

“I think it was a fantastic idea from the state,” Coney said.

The owner of Puna Chocolate Company & Cafe in Hilo said more patrons have been using the cards as the expiration date nears.

“The cards have definitely been helpful the past couple months,” owner Benjamin Vanegtern said. “I’ve seen more of them the last few days, so I think people are trying to use the money up.

“I don’t work in the store every day, but I know the cards have made a difference in our profits. Seeing locals and even some of my employees use the cards makes me see how important and good this idea was.”

Pam Owens, part-owner of Pineapples restaurant in Hilo, said some of her former employees, who were laid off because of the pandemic, have used the cards to order takeout for their families.

“The cards have really been a big bonus for us,” Owens said. “With the holidays coming up, I’m not sure if we’ll slow down or not after the program.”

Coney said Kilauea Lodge has received many calls from people who have only recently received their cards and are trying to use as much of their funds as possible.

The program distributed the cards to people who received certain unemployment benefits during the month of September. While people who received standard unemployment insurance benefits in September appear to have received their cards in a timely manner, people who were eligible because they received benefits through the state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program have said they only received their cards very recently, Coney said, and now have less than a week to spend $500 on food.

However, all transactions with the cards must be completed by Tuesday, and the cards cannot be used to pre-order meals in the future or purchase gift cards.


Email Michael Brestovansky at

Email Kelsey Walling at

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