What Do These Five Local Restaurants Feed Their Staff For Lunch or Dinner?

A behind-the-scenes peek into the family meals that restaurant workers cook for themselves—from gourmet scraps to full-on feasts.


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Whether it’s a plate of food eaten standing or squatting, or over a white-cloth covered dining table, almost every restaurant serves a staff meal, sometimes called family meal, for its employees. Prepared by the cooks and eaten by the entire staff, it’s often kitchen scraps and trimmings transformed into comfort food, the kind of stuff you might cook at home. Because, for many of the employees, the restaurant is home. Or, at least, one of them.

 

Merriman’s

Photos: Elyse Butler Mallams

 

A fresh and nourishing dinner prepared by your teammates. The chance to sit down for just 15 minutes. A moment to catch up and eat together. You’d think everyone would be eager to pull up a chair to family meal. 

 

But they weren’t. It took months for family meal—at least sitting down for it—to gain traction in Peter Merriman’s restaurants. “Because people always have something to do. A cook always has something to do. A server always has something to do,” says executive chef Neil Murphy. “So we pay people to come in 15 to 20 minutes early.”

 

1. Quinoa and kekela farm greens salad. 2. A chocolate and strawberry cake ordered and never picked up becomes dessert for family meal. 3. Blackened ‘ahi fish tacos served with corn tortillas from big island mexican foods in hilo.

 

 

He tastes all the employee meals when he goes to the restaurants. “And if it’s crap, I lay into these guys: ‘What, you’re going to put this out? This is what you do for a living?’ I want a sauce. I want some garnish. I want salad. I want ladles, I want spoons. We went from hotel pans to platters; we went from people using their hands to using spoons.” Everything matters, he says. And the camaraderie formed at the table—the bond—even if it’s a small one, lays the foundation for something greater. 

 

Duke’s Waikīkī

 

Duke’s serves two family meals a day—one for the breakfast and lunch crew, one for the evening crew. Each one feeds somewhere between 70 to 90 employees. So many that the restaurant can’t even keep track. The cooks prepare family meal while simultaneously cranking out hundreds of plates for the dining room. 

 

“garlic balls”—made-from-scratch rolls pulled hot out of the oven and tossed with raw garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper.

Whereas smaller restaurants with a staff of 15 or fewer can throw together family meal an hour before it’s served, Duke’s has to buy food specifically for family meal. Sometimes, family meal is dictated by what’s on sale—like the time crab legs were $3 a pound. 

 

The week’s employee meal schedule is tacked to the wall. Monday’s theme is “Home Style,” with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn cobbettes, coleslaw and dinner rolls. Tuesday is Taco Tuesday. “You should have been here for Taco Tuesday!” everyone tells us. Everyone. Wednesday is labeled “Asian,” which this week is pastele stew. Thursday, the day we come, is Italian with veggie pasta, chicken alfredo, meat marinara with fried basil, and “garlic balls,” soft, garlicky puffs served hot from the oven. If this were my family meal, my plate would be all garlic balls.

 

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