Traditional Hawaiian Restaurant Highway Inn Keeps Up With the 21st Century
Highway Inn’s third generation tries to figure out how to keep a seven-decade-old restaurant relevant.
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Sizzling platter of smoked pork and pipikaula.
When I was young, I didn’t think anything of growing up in the restaurant business. I just experienced it for what it was, but didn’t appreciate or recognize that it was something really special that my family was doing. I didn’t realize that until I moved away. And I think that occurs to a lot of us who have the opportunity to move away from Hawaii and be in places like New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. We look back and say, “Wow, the place I was raised is so incredibly special and has such unique cultural experiences that you cannot find anywhere in the world.”
When I went away for college, I wanted to come back and understand a little bit more about the food that Highway Inn does, why we do it, why did my grandparents decide to do this, why did my dad decide to do this?
Previous generations didn’t do things because they wanted to do them or because they had the luxury to make choices. They did what they had to do to survive. It was as simple as that. My grandparents were extremely poor. They had seven kids. This restaurant was built out of a basic necessity—cooking was a skill that my grandfather, with only a second-grade education, knew. Then, my father took over simply because there was no other person to take over. So I think the beauty of it is that I do have a choice. I don’t have to do this. I chose to continue Highway Inn. Growing up, it was kind of an implicit understanding that the business would continue. We didn’t know how—there are four girls in my family. I’m the eldest. Being the eldest, I kind of always felt that responsibility was mine.
In 2003, my dad had a stroke. The day after he had the stroke, the first thing he said as soon as he could speak was, “Who’s going to do the catering order? I have to deliver an order tonight.”
So I came back from Oregon, where I was in graduate school, to transition the company from my father. Then I went back to Oregon, and I finished up my course work for four years while my sister stayed back to manage the company. But, at one point, I realized, I’m not Superwoman. I can’t do a dissertation and manage a company at the same time, and so I decided after seven years of working really hard on my Ph.D. at the University of Oregon that I just couldn’t do it. And, at the end of the day, I knew I wasn’t going to be a professor, and I knew I wasn’t going to do clinical work or research. I was going to end up in the family business. But it was hard, because I worked so hard to get the three letters behind my name, only to stop short of finishing. And other people would say, “Why don’t you just finish?” My response to that is, “To what end? Just so I can have you call me Dr. Toguchi?” It would have been a self-centered purpose, and I wasn’t going to make myself go crazy trying to do everything just so I could have a certain perception about who I am.
I really don’t buy into the idea that whether you’re born into privilege or not, that you have an excuse. We grew up with the mindset that everything we had rided upon the backs of others who came before us. My father did a pretty good job reminding me about how hard a lot of people had to work so that I could have these opportunities in life. That’s something that, for me, is really important to impart upon the next generation. Sometimes, they really do believe, “It’s all about me. I’m so wonderful.”
To me, one of the most beautiful things is seeing my father make laulau, my uncle make laulau, and seeing the mounds of green. It’s one of the most inspiring sights because it reminds me of why we do what we do every single day, how special it is, how much time and energy it took. My father is 67 and still goes into Highway Inn three or four times a week and makes the laulau.
Monica’s grandfather, Seiichi Toguchi, founder of Highway Inn.
Photo: Courtesy Monica Toguchi
One thing about my grandfather that I observed was he knew no life other than work. When he was in his 70s, my aunties were really encouraging him to retire, because he worked so incredibly hard. But when you tell somebody who works so hard from the time they’re like 14 years old to retire, what do they retire to? They didn’t get to develop friendships. They didn’t get to develop hobbies, because they spent their whole time working. So, when my father stepped in to take over, my grandfather just ended up watching TV all day.
With my father, I made a conscious effort to keep him engaged. Even though he’s 67 years old, I want him to be able to wake up every morning and have something to look forward to. Part of the bar is dedicated to my dad. I envisioned when we came to Kakaako that I would have a bar, and he’d be the old man sitting at the corner drinking his beer and eating his peanuts. I wanted to give him a place where he could look back and appreciate the fruits of his hard labor and the fruits of his parents’ hard labor.
I think he’s very proud. I think he probably didn’t realize how much balls I had.