Hawai‘i Restaurant Association’s Ninth Annual Hall of Fame
Motivation, perseverance and a whole lot of hard work is what made this year’s inductees become standouts in the Island dining scene. Meet the individuals who are now part of the Hawai‘i Restaurant Association’s restaurant and food industry Hall of Fame.
Roy & Dora Hayashi
Like Like Drive Inn
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon
In a time when restaurants seem to open and close before most of us even get a chance to Google Map the address, there are a few local eateries that continue to stand strong in the fickle food business. And there is no stronger monument to Island eateries than Like Like Drive Inn. Family owned and operated since 1953, Like Like Drive Inn is now in the hands of the third generation of family foodies—two sisters whose family legacy is too valuable for them to consider doing anything else but make sure that hamburger steak and loco moco keep coming to our tables.
“He really enjoys being here,” says Dora of her husband, who, despite having handed over the reins to his daughters Patti and Julie, still spends three days a week in the restaurant. “And, when he doesn’t come in, the workers really miss him.” A testament that she says can be attributed to decades of mutual respect between bosses and employees. And a
value that has clearly been passed down through the years.
Photo: Courtesy of Like Like Drive Inn
On a Monday morning, Hayashi’s daughters Julie Tateyama and Patti Okuhara look just like anyone else moving through the restaurant, bussing tables, seating guests, closing out checks. Here, there is no visible division of ranks. No “us” and “them.” Perhaps it’s because the Hayashis don’t believe in the notion of entitlement. Every one of their children, and their children’s children, start at the bottom and work their way up. No preferential treatment allowed. Being born into the family doesn’t guarantee your spot at the top. Both Tateyama and Okuhara started as dishwashers. Then they got promoted to cashier or busser.
Photo: Courtesy of Like Like Drive Inn
Today, though they run the show, they’re not above taking the graveyard shift if they’re short staffed. And their spouses and kids are all working. Some are bussers, some are chefs, some are cashiers. And every one of them do it—dirty work and all—for love of family. Some things never change. And we wouldn’t want them to.
Photo: Courtesy of Town Restaurant
James Beard Award-nominated chef Ed Kenney may not have three decades of restaurant experience under his apron strings, but once he discovered his deep appreciation for food and Hawaiian food culture, he kicked it into overdrive, and, since 2005, has opened three restaurants and one deli-style takeout joint. It’s safe to say that commercial real estate, Kenney’s first career, wasn’t the path for him, because if anyone is cut out for the food business it’s Kenney.
Town, the chef’s flagship restaurant that he opened in 2005 with chef and business partner David Caldiero, was an instant success. But not one that didn’t require a ton of vision. Because who knew that an old Pizza Hut building in the sleepy town of Kaimukī could become one of the country’s great restaurants?
After graduating from the University of Colorado with a B.S. in entrepreneurship/small business management and spending four years in corporate commercial real estate, Kenney embarked on a yearlong journey around the world—a sort of walkabout during which he gleaned whatever knowledge he could about the world’s cultures and the role that food plays in those cultures. The Island boy returned to Hawai‘i, ready to apply his experiences to life at home. He went back to school and graduated from Kapi‘olani Community College’s Culinary Institute of the Pacific, and so started his life in food.
Since then he has not only become one of these Islands’ most venerated restaurateurs, he has helped launch a movement based on his motto, “local first, organic whenever possible, with aloha always,” that is now so ingrained in food culture in Hawai‘i it’s just understood that, if you’re going to open a restaurant, you’re probably going to do it responsibly, with high regard for the Island’s innate cultural respect for food. The Kenney-style way of doing business—understanding what food really means to the Hawaiian culture and perpetuating it in such a way that is accessible even to people who know nothing about it and modernizing it for a new generation— was once a novel approach to the business. Now it’s what diners have come to expect from chef entrepreneurs.
Just a few months into the life of his newest restaurant, Mud Hen Water, Kenney also sits on the board of directors for MA‘O Organic Farms, The Kōkua Hawai‘i Foundation and Sustain Hawai‘i. He is also on the advisory committees for the Hawai‘i Food Policy Council and the culinary programs at Kapi‘olani Community College and Leeward Community College, and is prepping for his role as host of the upcoming PBS food genealogy travel show Family Ingredients—and he’s not showing any signs of slowing down. Lucky us.
Nori’s Saimin & Snacks
Photo: Stanley Kutsuna
At 22 years old, O‘ahu-born Beth-An Nishijima set out for the wilds of the Big Island to make something of herself. She knew she wanted to be her own boss, and thought: Why not open a restaurant? If she knew then what she knows now, she may have done things differently. But then again, maybe not.
“Because of my age, my inexperience and lack of money, it took me over a year to open Nori’s,” says Nishijima, whose eatery, Nori’s Saimin & Snacks, has now been a Hilo staple for 33 years. “There were no other restaurants serving the same foods or open the late hours, so I thought, what a great idea! Nori’s will be the first!”
“I always wanted to have my own business, and I thought a restaurant was the easiest way to do it. Boy, was I wrong! No one told me about the long hours you have to put in, or the hard work it entails. Your life becomes the business. And, even if someone had told me how hard it was going to be, I was too hard-headed to listen.”
It was all trial and error, she says, years of simply holding steadfast, working harder than she ever thought she could and refusing to get comfortable.“When I started, my menu was really limited, but, throughout the years, it’s become a little of everything,” says Nishijima, who says one of her success secrets is her willingness to change things up along the way. “Then I added the omiyage portion of the business—the chocolate mochi and cookies, malt candy, ‘ahi jerky—and then the catering. Diversify! That’s what keeps it going and what makes it fun.”
Photo: Courtesy of Beth-An Nishjima
Today, Nori’s continues to change and grow. It has to, or else Nishijima wouldn’t still be doing it. “The biggest challenge was learning to adapt and be more flexible,” she says. “If you don’t, you won’t grow or survive. Every day is a new adventure, and I am never bored with my job. Anyone wanting to be in this business has to be crazy. I know I am. I say that about all restaurateurs. We have to be thick-skinned, and work hard. If you think this is a fluff job, go get a government job.” A sense of humor doesn’t hurt, either.
Looking back over the last three decades, even though it’s the hard work that seems to stand out the most to Nishijima, it’s really the years and years of building something that touches people’s lives that she treasures. And, even though she says she may have gotten it all wrong in the beginning by choosing a career path that worked her harder than anything else she could have picked, Nishijima says she was always right about one thing. “The one thing I didn’t get wrong: I will never starve. I have a restaurant.”
Photo: Odeely Dayondon
Photo: Courtesy of Mark Oyama
Mark Oyama knows a thing or two about hard work. The chef and caterer has worked seven days a week since he was in the eighth grade at Kaua‘i High School. Back then, he was working nights and weekends making manju and Spam musubi at his local mom-and-pop shop to save up money for his first car: a super sporty Nissan 240Z. He hasn’t slowed down since.
After graduating from Kapi‘olani Community College’s culinary arts program, Oyama went on to work under some of the best chefs in the world (including fellow Hall of Fame inductee Alan Wong), honing his craft until he had the tools and the know-how to build his own culinary empire. For him, that came in the form of not only a restaurant (Mark’s Place), but also a full-service catering company (Contemporary Flavors Catering). And a part-time annual gig in Alaska. And his full-time faculty position at Kaua‘i Community College’s culinary arts school.
“Working at a young age taught me perseverance and the initiative to work hard,” he says. “I remember opening up the business and working 16 to 18 hours a day for months. I worked long hours and slept in my office for three months in the beginning to get the business going.” But, even now, 17 years after opening Mark’s Place and Contemporary Flavors Catering, and 24 years after returning home to Kaua‘i from work on the East Coast to join the faculty of Kaua‘i Community College, Oyama is still putting in the long hours.
These days, it’s not a new set of wheels that keeps him motivated. It’s his customers, his students and his staff. “Our employees are more like family, rather than just employees,” he says. “The most challenging thing about my business is being able to find ways to take care of my employees in the present and also in the future. For a small business, we offer many employee benefits that even large companies don’t offer.”
Photo: Courtesy of Mark Oyama
“For me, it’s important that I look for things that will help my employees survive and thrive in the future,” says Oyama, who acknowledges that his mentors did the same for him, making sure he always took the right steps along the way in his career so that when he was ready to go it alone, he would succeed. “This is a business that one person can’t do alone. It takes a great team to do this. Everyone is just as important as the others, and, if everyone is on the same page, everyone wins.”
Photo: Jansen Souza
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Reversade
It’s as if Gerard Reversade was born to be a chef. The award-winning French chef comes from a long line of food artisans and at the age of 10 was already baking as if he’d been doing it for a lifetime. Growing up in France’s Loire Valley, there was never a question of whether Reversade was going to be a chef. It was just a matter of when.
At 14 years of age, he was already apprenticing under four of France’s Master Chefs, among them Robert and Pierre Laporte from the famous Café de Paris in Biarritz. “I worked 15 hours a day,” says Reversade. “Much of the work was menial, but there is no better way to learn.”
By the time Reversade landed in the Islands in 1973, he needed only a few years to acquaint himself with Island food culture, and on June 10, 1982, he opened his own French restaurant, Gerard’s, in Lahaina Market Place, where he was practicing the farm-to-table philosophy long before it was trendy. It never occurred to him not to use fresh vegetables grown on the slopes of Haleakalā, fresh ‘Ulupalakua strawberries or fresh fish caught by Lahaina fishermen. When the Plantation Inn Bed and Breakfast opened in 1987, its owners invited Reversade to relocate and this is where Gerard’s remains today.
“Right now, as we speak, I am making 50 pounds of mango jam with mangoes that I picked in my yard,” says Reversade, adding that he still makes sure to keep himself on task every day by taking on one big daily project. Like making fresh jam. But it’s his customer-focused work ethic that’s made Reversade the kind of chef he is today.
Photo: Courtesy of Gerard Reversade
“I am a perfectionist and I take my job very seriously,” he says. “I believe that it is important to take care of each customer one at a time, because, when they come to my restaurant, they have very high expectations. Happy customers are the best advertisement.”
“It’s so rewarding to see that people still have confidence in me after 33 years in business. Some even wonder what would happen to them if I ever closed!” After four decades in the business on these Islands, Reversade looks forward to the next decade. “I am hoping to be healthy so I will be able to continue my journey, pass on my wisdom and keep this institution alive.”
Kapi‘olani Community College
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon
Photo: Courtesy of Gladys Sato
For every great chef who makes it out of culinary school and into the fast-paced, hard-working world of restaurants, there’s an equally great team of educators who make it their life’s work to train and guide their young chef proteges so that, come time to play with big guys, they have all the tools they need to succeed. Gladys Sato spent 33 years doing just that.
As professor emeritus at Kapi‘olani Community College’s (KCC) Culinary Institute of the Pacific, Sato built her career making it possible for up-and-coming chefs to further their careers. From creating curriculum and programs to teaching courses in nutrition, food safety, management and food-facility planning, to overseeing the groundbreaking and building of KCC’s culinary school facilities, Sato has enabled novice chefs to become great chefs. Ask her, and she’ll say over and over again that it was a team effort, but a good team is only as good as its leader, and, before retiring in 2004, Sato spent her career being the kind of leader who not only provided instruction and guidance, but also genuinely invested in the lives of the students and faculty, building a relationship between the teachers and the learners that created the ideal learning environment.
“Kapi‘olani Community College has the largest culinary arts program in Hawai‘i, but it is linked with all the other programs on the islands of Hawai‘i, Maui and Kaua‘i through the CIP program,” says Sato, emphasizing that graduates of the Culinary Institute of the Pacific are not only successful due to whatever innate culinary gifts they may possess, but also because CIP’s curriculum is designed specifically to facilitate the graduates’ success. “The courses are fully articulated, and regular meetings are held among the heads of the programs to dialog concerns and issues that may arise. Each of these programs has produced stars in our industry today. The program is developed based on the American Culinary Standards and the programs looked to their advisory committees and industry practitioners for guidance. We are proud of our graduates.”
Photo: courtesy of Gladys Sato
Having been retired now for over a decade, looking back, Sato says she never had any reservations that she was leaving the program in capable hands. “All faculty members and supporting staff come to the program with one goal in mind, Kūlia i ka nu‘u, to strive for the highest. Each member of the department is hired based on their qualifications and their ability to contribute to the program goals,” says Sato. Any advice for future faculty? “None,” she says. “All faculty are qualified to chair the department. Each promotes the departmental goals with a positive, progressive way of thinking. I’ve been gone from the department for 11 years, now. It is still faring very well.”
Southern Wine & Spirits
Photo: Kristen Hook
Photo: Courtesy of Warren Shon
There’s a delicious irony in the fact that the man who operates one of this state’s largest liquor wholesale companies looks most forward every day to his morning cup of green tea. For its soothing abilities, says Warren Shon, executive vice president of Southern Wine & Spirits of Hawai‘i. The tea comes only after Shon has read through his first 100 emails. Because, if there’s one thing Shon can be sure of, it’s that his day is going to get much more demanding than simply having to read through a few hundred emails.
“The logistical challenges of doing business in an island state can be difficult, says Shon. “Fortunately, we have some of the most patient and forgiving customers on the planet!”
Shon, who’s been with Southern Wine & Spirits for 27 years, discovered his love of the restaurant business as a young busboy. He went on to become a restaurant manager and, along the way, grew his passion for wine and wine-and-food pairing.
It wasn’t long before the restaurant’s owners saw in Shon some serious management potential, and asked him to help them open a second restaurant in Newport Beach, California, where he honed his skills in wine and liquor purchasing and sales and was quickly courted by Southern Wine & Spirits executives who saw in him a bright future in liquor sales. Shon spent nine years with Southern in California before coming home to help start the company’s Hawai‘i division.
After another 18 years with Southern Wine & Spirits of Hawai‘i, Shon credits the company’s success, as well as his own personal success, not to anything he’s accomplished, but rather to the dedication and loyalty of his staff and customers.
“I’ve been fortunate to work alongside some incredible people in my career, and our company’s ownership and management inspire me every day. I would also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the tremendous support of our many valued customers and suppliers. I wouldn’t be here without them.” The secret to his success, he says, is very simple. “I have managed to surround myself with some extraordinary people.”
If Shon could leave something to his eventual successor, some wisdom gleaned from years of building relationships and logistical trial and error, his answer is again a simple one—and one he lives by daily: “You work in the most beautiful place in the world, alongside Hawai‘i’s greatest asset: its people. Be respectful and mindful of the past while helping to build a better future. Oh, and don’t screw it up.”
Tamura’s Market & Tamura’s Fine Wine & Liquors
Photo: Odeelo Dayondon
Photo: Courtesy of Glenn Tamura
When Glenn Tamura, the son of a local grocery store owner and heir to the Tamura’s grocery store empire, told his friend Chuck Furuya that he wanted to take his grocery store expertise and parlay it into becoming the state’s largest retailer of fine wines, Furuya laughed. And then shut him down.
“He told me I could never be a serious wine retailer because I knew nothing about wine,” says Tamura, who acknowledges that he’d rather throw back a few fine whiskeys than swirl and sip wine. But Tamura was determined to be a wine guy, and Furuya, who happened to be Hawai‘i’s first master sommelier and only the 10th in the U.S., finally agreed to take him on as an apprentice (and what better teacher?). Their first lesson came in the form of a trip to California wine country, where the tastings fell on flat tongues. “I was just drinking to get bus’,” says Tamura. “They would tell me to identify the flavors in the wine, and all I could taste was wine.”
Eventually, Tamura says he realized the reason he couldn’t identify specific flavors in wine was because he wasn’t adventurous enough of an eater. He had no context for the flavors. And so he decided to make himself an expert on both food and wine. He ate everything, and then he drank everything. He studied, he asked questions and he cracked the code on being a wine and spirits retailer in Hawai‘i. No easy feat.
Everything from liquor taxes, permits and licenses to wine storage, climate and shipping conditions make selling wine and liquor a completely different game from selling meat and produce.
But Tamura knew exactly what he wanted to do. He even wrote his graduate thesis on it. His vision: to open the biggest little liquor store on the island, to make wine and spirits accessible to everyone, not just fancypants with money. As a matter of fact, Tamura is very clear about the fact that he is not fancy. Not even a little bit. (OK, maybe a little bit—the private bar attached to his office on the second floor of his Wai‘alae Avenue location is pretty cool.)
Photo: Courtesy of Glenn Tamura
He makes sure the members of his staff adhere to one overriding principal: Never judge a book by its cover. Just because someone walks into the store wearing board shorts and slippers doesn’t mean they don’t want to spend $200 on a bottle of wine. Or vice versa. Maybe the person driving the BMW likes the $12 prosecco. The point is, he says, you just never know.
Tamura’s sales staff don’t get commission or a percentage of sales. “I don’t want them to be motivated by the upsale,” says Tamura. “I want them to give the customer what they want.” And, if they want box wine and a six-pack of PBR, that’s what they’re going to get.
As for Tamura, he got everything he wanted. He is the biggest wine and liquor retailer in the Islands with three O‘ahu locations and three Maui locations. And he’s loving every minute of it. “I’m not going to retire. I’m going to keep going until the day that I don’t love this business anymore,” he says. And, from where we’re sitting, we’re pretty sure that day won’t ever come.
Alan Wong’s & Alan Wong’s Pineapple Room
Photo: David Croxford
Photo: Courtesy of Alan Wong
Not even Alan Wong could have known that one day he’d be “Alan Wong.” THE Alan Wong. The young dishwasher who would go on to become the guy who put Hawai‘i on the map as a legitimate food place, not merely fantasy islands with exotic-ish food that you try at your hotel lū‘au just to say you tried it.
“I never could have imagined my life turning out the way it did. Never,” says the James Beard Award-winning chef. “I was just a kid washing dishes, trying to get by day to day.” Knowing he wanted to be in food, Wong graduated from Kapi‘olani Community College’s culinary arts program and then went on to work at the iconic Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia and later at Lutece in New York City under internationally recognized chef Andre Soltner. Both experiences changed his life, says Wong, and determined the way he would go on to conduct his professional life.
“As a young chef, I was given opportunities to be mentored by great chefs. I’ve been so fortunate to be able to do the same for young chefs who need coaching and direction.” Wong knew at a young age he would have to love what he does if he was going to be able to do it for a lifetime. There was a time when he thought baseball was his life’s passion—to be a professional baseball player was a dream he had hoped to chase. Until he found his place in the kitchen. “I honestly don’t feel like I come to work every day. I love what I’m doing. It’s not baseball, but I love it.”
“I love the creative process, and not only with food. I even love solving business problems creatively. But my favorite thing of course is being in the kitchen.” Being in the business of food isn’t without its challenges, but Wong keeps things in perspective. “Finding help isn’t hard at all. Finding good help is hard,” he says. “People can be your greatest joy and also your greatest frustration. But I try to remember that I’ve been doing this for 43 years, and things change. Generations change, and the three generations under me do things differently, and it’s up to me to learn what turns each of them on and off.”
Photo: Courtesy of Alan Wong
After 43 years, retirement must have at least crossed his mind a time or two. “Well, yes,” he says. “But I’m never going to retire, as long as I can keep doing what I’m doing.” But, theoretically speaking, if a viable successor to the Wong empire should come along, “The first thing I would tell him or her is: Are you sure you want to do this? I would scare them. Just to make sure they’re committed. Then I would say: This is your time now. Take this ball and run with it for as far and as long as you can. Then I would reassure them I’m not going anywhere. I’ll always be around.”