The Man Who Bought Liliha Bakery and opened The Signature

Peter Kim made his name with casual dining spots such as Yummy Korean BBQ. Five years ago, he bought Liliha Bakery. Now he’s moving upscale with the steakhouse The Signature.

Peter Kim.

A deep bench of brand-new, still-in-their-boxes Zojirushi rice cookers wait in the Yummy Restaurant Group office. Among Yummy’s holdings: eight locations of Yummy Korean BBQ, four Chow Mein Expresses, three Lahaina Chicken Co.s and one (for now) Liliha Bakery, all of which have rice on the menu. A rice cooker down is unacceptable. Or maybe, Peter Kim, 54, is stocking up for Liliha’s imminent expansion.


He’s got plans. He always has. They used to be centered on football: A Korean-born, Kaiser High grad, Kim left a football scholarship at UH for the University of Alabama. He says he wanted to improve his English and his chances at a national championship.


Alabama didn’t win the championship while he was there, though he did play for supercoach Paul “Bear” Bryant. And his English is very good. Certain words betray a Southern drawl—in particular, “God,” whom he thanks for getting him in the restaurant business.


Yummy started 26 years ago, when Kim helped his family open the first Yummy Korean BBQ in Hawaii Kai. He was only going to help for six months, while he waited for his assignment as a Treasury Department special agent. Within six months, though, he had opened two more Yummy Korean BBQs, in Pearl City and Ala Moana Center. “If you’re going to do it, you’re gonna give your 100 percent and you’re going to open multiple stores,” he says. “That’s how you become successful.”


He was all in.


He now has 18 food-court outlets. Kim calls Yummy the most “diversified restaurant group in Hawaii.” Five years ago, he bought himself a bakery. When he bought Liliha, he had hoped to open two more locations within two years. So he’s a little behind.


But in between Lilihas, he debuted his first fine-dining concept—The Signature—“the only locally owned prime steakhouse,” he says.


From kalbi to caretaker of a local institution to $50 steaks, Kim’s path to restaurateur:


Five years ago, I bought Liliha Bakery. I wanted to continue the legacy it had established. Right now we have made some changes—I wouldn’t say changes—improvements. We’re constantly coming up with new products without minimizing the original items it already had. We take credit cards, people don’t have to wait in line like they did before. We have phone-order specialists. We made the bakery a little larger. All in all, I think we’ve made tremendous improvements and sales have grown.


We have a website, we’ve updated the boxes, the stickers. There’s more to come.


I had been approached by a friend [to buy Liliha Bakery]. I refused to look at it, because I was not a bakery person. I stick to what I do the best. But then I looked at it and said, “Maybe I can do some good.” I had never gone to Liliha Bakery until I was approached.


I’m enjoying it more in the past six years than in the middle 10 years of the business. The first 10 years I really did enjoy it. The second 10 years, I wasn’t sure. So many problems in the restaurant business. Daily problems. The quality issues, the constant change in prices, the labor problems:


There was a period in the Hawaii economy when we couldn’t find anyone to work.


I have always called myself semi-fast food from the second year I was in business. Not really fast food, I was in a class by myself. Twenty-six years ago, customers expected fast food to be bad, but fast and cheap. That has changed. But we never served any bad food. Fresh vegetables, quality meat, and starch. Fresh-cooked rice.


We’ve been upgrading for the past seven years. That’s exactly what I did with Liliha Bakery on the restaurant side. Got rid of the butter oil, I don’t know what they used to use. I use olive oil. The restaurant side is all olive oil. I took out the butter oil because it’s not good for your health. We’re buying better-quality beef, fish.


I have failed in a few concepts. There’s no shame about it. But you learn from the mistakes and the failed operations. You kind of move forward and add a little experience to the next one you do.


We failed with the Taco King, Mexican operations. We didn’t do well with Bear’s plate lunch concept (Bear’s Drive-Inn, named after Kim’s football coach). I have no idea [why]. Just one of those things.


The Signature is something that I have always wanted to do, before I die. I eat steak a lot, all over the country. Every steak restaurant you go, everything is à la carte. They charge you $40, $50, $60 per piece of meat but they can never afford to give free potatoes. So I said to myself one day, when I own a steakhouse, I’ll give free potatoes. All the top-line steakhouses around here charge $14. I say a lot of nerve to charge $14 for a baked potato. Ours we give free. We give truffled mashed potatoes, even better than a baked potato, more flavor.


I miscalculated this business. This is so different from what I have ever done, including Liliha Bakery. The third day I realized, my calculation was so wrong. I’m man enough to admit that. Let’s change the course. I never thought the customer expectation would be as high as it is. A lot of details. It’s not always having the good food at a good price, that doesn’t cut it. It’s a special night out for these diners, they want everything to go perfect. I thought as long as I deliver the value, the food, that would be it, but the service factor is such a big issue. I learned that quick. These people know their food. There’s no margin of error. We have to buy a particular product, a particular way, it has to be cooked in a very particular way. There’s zero margin of mistake allowed.


These are very affluent diners. When I read some of the Yelp comments, I’m, like, they don’t even own a restaurant, but they know more about food than I do. And I’m not ashamed to say that. I’ve been in business for 26 years. If I can learn from these people, I’m not ashamed to learn. Some of the comments are very well put together and we really appreciate those people, but there are some comments, very little, that are just obnoxious.


When it comes to tough situations, football gave me a significant influence to not give up. The coaches that I played for—Ron Lee, Dick Tomey, [Paul] Bryant—they taught me how to overcome these tough situations. The bottom line is to be transparent and you don’t give up and good things will happen. I totally believe in the American Dream as long as you give 100 percent. Whenever I get into tough situations, I always go back to football.