This cafe never closed after Lahaina's fires, extending a lifeline of normalcy
MAUI, Hawaii -- It might seem odd for a restaurant on the edge of a disaster zone to stay open.
But Java Jazz, a cafe just a few miles from Lahaina's scorched downtown, never shut down after the Aug. 8 catastrophe. While dozens of businesses shuttered, it kept serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, giving a lifeline of normalcy to locals, emergency workers, and tourists who had nowhere else to go.
"A lot of our customers know that we won't close," the owner, Farzad Azad, said during a recent visit to the cafe. "We'll give everything away, and make sure everybody has something to eat" rather then close, he added.
But staying open wasn't easy. For a while, there was no power so the chef could only use a gas stove. With no internet, purchases became cash-only. But with only a fraction of its staff, Java Jazz stuck to its normal hours, open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
'Something has to look normal'
Customers – from first responders to regulars – lined up at the cafe's door in the morning, wanting hot coffee and food. In the evening, they wanted a cold drink and company.
"We felt like, we will continue on with life," Azad said. "We can't just go and throw in the towel. Something has to look normal."
Sure, we're talking about a restaurant in a strip mall. But to its regulars, a place like Java Jazz is the most special hole-in-the-wall in the world. And now more than ever, it's a relief to see familiar faces.
"We're a small town, so everybody pretty much knows everybody," the bartender, Cori Gross, said. "So it's nice when somebody walks in the door and you don't know about what happened to them – and you see they're alive. It's really, really great."
On this visit, regulars are drifting in every 30 minutes or so.
"A lot of times we just cry and hug," Gross says. "And then we sit down and have a drink."
An unusual cafe adapts to unusual times
Wearing a black vest and pointy boots, with silver curly hair and a waxed mustache, Azad is as singular as his cafe, which opened in the 1990s. An enthusiastic raconteur, he peppers his speech with words like "Schaboomski."
There aren't many bare spots on the walls at Java Jazz. Many first-time visitors can't find the bathrooms, whose doors are plastered with Polaroids, mementoes of people grinning – celebrating a milestone, or a random Saturday.
On some nights, Azad plays flamenco guitar during the cafe's music sessions, a tradition that went unplugged when the power went out. During that stretch, patrons ate and drank by candlelight.
As I speak to Azad around closing time, a woman politely interrupts us. She's a restaurant industry veteran who lost her home and is staying across the street. With no current income, she wonders if Java Jazz is hiring. Azad doesn't bat an eye.
"Honey. Come over here, I'm hiring right now. Come over here to see me tomorrow," he said. "I don't have any applications. Come over here and you're gonna do just fine, trust me."
The quest for normal
Sitting down in Java Jazz, there are few signs that a disaster smacked this entire area off the grid earlier this month. The café's big glass doors stand wide open. Occasionally, a small bird flies inside, landing on a table to nab a bit of pasta from an unattended plate.
"That's normal," says Antonio Martinez, a jack of all trades who's been working here for five years. "Happens all the time."
Still, some things are different. When patrons sit at a table, Martinez lists what the kitchen can make. Today, there's a burger; a blackened fish sandwich; pasta; quesadillas. But because there are no eggs and no gravy, one diner is told, there is no loco moco, the traditional Hawaiian hamburger steak dish.
After a middle-aged couple in T-shirts and shorts take up a perch at the bar, Gross tells them that one of the cafe's cooks lost his house and is living in a hotel. Then she adds the important part: "Everybody is alive and OK."
Soon after, it's back to business.
"You want a double," she says to one man as she makes a margarita, as much a declaration as a question.
A touristy area becomes an aid hub
When you drive to this spot a few miles north of Lahaina's ruined downtown, it's eerie how abruptly the scene shifts – from scorched earth and the haunting remains of houses to leafy streets and lush golf courses.
Java Jazz is in the Honokowai shopping center, tucked among the resorts of Kaanapali. On the day of the fire, some people who escaped the flames found refuge in the parking lot.
This area is where the government enlisted hotels to set up a family assistance center and house people who lost everything in the fires. In parks and parking lots along the coast, aid groups distribute food and other essentials.
Tourists normally flock to Kaanapali, but those crowds left as soon as they could after the fire. Now it's common to see people walking around in high-viz emergency gear, or wearing T-shirts from the Red Cross or World Central Kitchen.
A musician plays his usual gig after losing everything
On this night at Java Jazz, guitarist Rick Glencross is singing about going home, leading a rendition of the Beach Boys' hit "Sloop John B." In these circumstances, the chorus hits a little different:
Let me go home
Why don't they let me go home?
This is the worst trip I've ever been on
Right now, Glencross's home is parked outside: an old Honda Odyssey that he calls his "Van House." As he sings, a diner walks up to the stage and slips a $100 bill into the tip jar.
In between sets, Glencross, who's in his 70s, tells me he was literally caught napping when the inferno hit. He woke up to find an officer pounding on his home's front door, shouting for him to leave.
"Behind him, the entire neighborhood is a conflagration," Glencross says of the fire. "All the houses – I didn't recognize them as structures."
He had just enough time to grab Blue, his Chihuahua-mix dog, and three guitars – "first things first," he said – and put them in his battered van. As he rushed to the driver's side door, he says, "this fireball came down the road, just flaming embers ... picked me up off my feet and and slammed me on my face."
He scrambled in and drove through the flames. He never saw that officer again.
"I truly believe I was touched by an angel," he says of the warning that saved his life.
Glencross, a Navy veteran originally from Maine, has a cot in the van, giving him a place to rest. He's looking for other housing, he says. In the meantime, he's doing what he's always done: playing music at Java Jazz as he has for nearly 20 years. He dismisses the idea that he would change that now.
"I kind of have to," he says of playing music for people. "It's in me, I can't help that."
A cafe, and a community, with many connections
The cafe has been a nexus for people to reconnect. At its U-shaped bar, locals share stories about the recovery effort and vent frustrations about dealing with bureaucracies. Regulars who can't visit in person have been calling to check up on the cafe. They range from locals to people who visit Maui frequently.
"Many people love this place," Martinez says of those calls. "They will make sure all the crew are OK, from the dishwasher to the owner. These people are amazing, they really are."
One woman called from California, Azad says. She wanted to know all the employees' full names so she could send them each a check for $1,200.
Many regulars come to Java Jazz looking for moments of comfort that might help make this new reality easier to handle. Talking to customers and staff, the word "normal" comes up over and over.
The people sitting at this bar lost friends; some also lost their homes. But they're still here – both among the living and at this cafe. And they're all here together.
As Gross picks out the first notes of the John Cruz anthem "Island Style," a woman says her goodbyes at the counter.
"Good night, Cori," she yells.
"I love you!" comes the response.
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