2016 Hale ‘Aina Awards: Champions of Chinatown
Here’s how two of downtown’s hottest new restaurants sprang from the partnership of Jesse Cruz and Dusty Grable. Two self-described “nobodies” (just try to find them in this photo!). The saga of Lucky Belly and Livestock Tavern shows that heart. Friendship and paying your dues make for an unbeatable combination.
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Business partners Dusty Grable, at left, with Jesse Cruz.
Photos: Aaron Yoshino
Somebody must’ve been watching over Jesse Cruz and Dusty Grable the day they decided to open a hip ramen shop at the corner of Hotel and Smith streets.
For a first venture, it seemed counterintuitive (more noodles in Honolulu?), yet the landlord accepted their proposal over 11 others. When banks turned down their loan application, financial help came from a couple of regular customers they’d served at a Kailua restaurant. Even so, they couldn’t have pulled off the high-concept renovation they had in mind without the help of the landlord, who was a general contractor, along with family and friends.
In the end, says Grable, “We built Lucky Belly for $150,000,” ridiculously low for a startup. “In fact, I feel like a liar when I say it cost $150,000, because it was all the friendships that were willing to support this that got it done. My wife did the interior design, all for love.”
But that good luck ran out when Lucky Belly opened. Far from being a safe choice, says the chef, Cruz, “Ramen was dangerous. In this town, everyone’s an expert. The clientele were saying the broth was too salty, too this and too that,” on social media. “Yelping is a great tool,” he adds, “but it can destroy you. In our first three months our confidence slipped; we were getting torn.”
Changing the menu based on day-to-day reactions went against everything the duo had learned working at an array of eateries, but they were running scared. “I didn’t even know what we were doing anymore,” Cruz says. “Finally, I gave myself a slap in the head and said, ‘We need to stop the anarchy and start believing in ourselves and our product again.’”
Busan Star cocktail, created by Lucky Belly bartender Joey Joyce.
Flash forward three years, and the duo are running not one but two restaurants facing each other at the respective corners of Smith and Hotel streets, both of them critical and popular successes. Gleaming urban outposts of exposed brick and polished concrete, they’re also helping fuel Chinatown’s rejuvenation. “Lately we’ve had tourists who’ve come to eat at Lucky Belly and Livestock Tavern every single day of their trip,” says Cruz. An impressive achievement for “a couple of nobodies” (Grable’s phrase) who plan to open a third venture, The Tchin-Tchin! Bar, this month.
The partners have kept a low profile, but, after a couple of hours of conversation, it’s clear they’ve mastered the inner workings of restaurants—including service, food sourcing and accounting—by studying what worked in their earlier jobs. But what gave them the confidence to leap from Lucky Belly’s belly bowl to Livestock’s smoked prime rib with horseradish crème and au jus, lobster and squid ink pasta, and crab cakes with hollandaise?
Grable, 32, digs up a favorite Steve Martin quote: “Naivete, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.”
Says Cruz, 37, “This is a passion-driven house.”