These 3 Family-Owned Eateries Are Bringing Local Favorites to Wider Audiences
While keeping the “small island feel.”
Young’s Fish Market
“You guys open?” A passerby pokes his head in at Young’s Fish Market’s gleaming new restaurant in Kapolei.
“Pretty soon.” Sitting in the empty dining room, Daniel Young has been saying this 40 to 50 times a day. “If you’re on Facebook you can follow us or give us a call.”
“Right on. Happy Easter.”
It’s Good Friday, 10 days before the grand opening, and Young is literally sitting on his hands. He’s waiting to hear about a city and county fire inspection, the final hurdle before he can open for business. In nine days he’s booked a kahu to bless the new restaurant and a Chinese lion dance troupe to bring good luck. He’s promised family and friends a pre-opening feast of lau lau, kālua pig, poi and poke. But with employees already pickling onions, sweeping floors and just generally waiting—as they have been for days—he knows he won’t get that call on this holiday.
The 33-year-old CEO’s first opening is huge. Young’s Fish Market hasn’t expanded since his grandfather’s time, when three small counters sold takeout lau lau and lomi salmon near the family home in Liliha. Before Young reached adulthood his father had consolidated to one restaurant at City Square. Now it’s Young’s turn. His vision is the most ambitious: expansion to multiple locations, maybe even the Mainland and beyond, starting with this prime spot at the entrance to Kapolei Commons with double the dining space of Kalihi.
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In a way, he’s always been ready. Young came into the family business full-time at 19, after his freshman year at the University of Hawai‘i, when the auntie who’d been helping his dad died. Alan Young had always left it up to Daniel and his sisters whether they wanted to work in the restaurant, and he wasn’t asking now. But Young could see he needed help. “Was it a difficult decision? It was in a sense. A lot of people say college years are the best years, they get to experience a lot of things,” Young says. But “we had an established business and name recognition. And there wasn’t a whole lot I couldn’t learn in the business that I would have learned taking business classes at UH.”
He gave his father his answer in the form of a question. He doesn’t remember what it was. Alan Young, the first in his family to go to college, had left in his junior year to help his ailing father, so he knew better than anyone how big a decision it was for Daniel to drop everything to work in the restaurant. He responded with a question of his own: “Are you sure?” Alan Young asked his son. Daniel was. Later Alan would tell his son how proud he was that he was continuing the family’s legacy. They worked together for eight years, during which Daniel learned how to weather a recession, a burst water pipe that closed the restaurant for a month and 40 days of rain that wiped out ti leaf crops (they wrapped their lau lau in foil). Then Alan died. Daniel was 27.
A woman opens the door at the Kapolei restaurant and makes a beeline for the counter. “We’re not open yet,” Young apologizes. “Pretty soon, though.”
“We want to be true to what we grew up with. We don’t want to be commercialized. We want to keep the same feeling that our customers get, the small island feel.”— Daniel Young
The chill case under the menu holds onions and ‘inamona; when he opens, Young will stock it with poke. That’s pretty much the only remnant left from Young’s Fish Market’s beginnings on Liliha Street in 1951. As fish stocks rose and plummeted with weather and seasons, Wilfred and Charlotte Young experimented with crack seed, Chinese food, roast meats, even shave ice. It was Hawaiian food that finally caught on. When Alan took over he added plate lunches and menu items like tripe stew and the famous turkey tails; it was he who transformed Young’s into a full-fledged Hawaiian restaurant. Daniel’s additions reflect his generation: spicy ‘ahi poke, poke bowls and Hawaiian bentos with kālua pig, mini lau lau, pipi kaula and sweet potato.
What Daniel had that his father and grandfather didn’t was a trending appetite for local food. Thanks to Barack Obama’s local-boy tastes, Food Network and the Hawai‘i Food & Wine Festival, local food in Daniel’s time had a new cachet. But with Hawai‘i on the map as a culinary destination, national and international players started showing up with star power and big marketing budgets. “The feel from talking to people is that they’re tired of losing the old Hawai‘i, the small mom-and-pops,” he says. “We want to be true to what we grew up with. We don’t want to be commercialized. We want to keep the same feeling that our customers get, the small island feel.”
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The space at Kapolei Commons was unexpected and almost too good to be true: a full kitchen (it used to be Kua ‘Aina Sandwich Shop), good foot traffic, practically next door to legions of hungry workers at Campbell Industrial Park, with plans in the works for new developments at Ko Olina and another road connecting it to Kapolei. And the only other Hawaiian food restaurant for miles is Highway Inn in Waipahu.
Young’s first child was born during lease negotiations. His sister, Andrea, who left her job managing restaurants at the Waikīkī Beach Marriott when their father died, would continue managing Kalihi and help out as backup at Kapolei. When Young gets his final permits—as he will with three days to spare—the menu at Kapolei will reflect three generations.
“Are you open yet?” A couple has walked in.
“Not yet. Pretty soon, though.”
“OK.” The man flashes a smile and a thumbs up. “Good for your family you got another location.”
City Square: Open Monday to Friday 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. 1286 Kalani St., (808) 841-4885; Kapolei Commons: Open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 4480 Kapolei Parkway, (808) 312-1377
Upstairs from the counter at the original Rainbow Drive-In, above scenes of gravy flowing on mix plates and vanilla ice cream dropping into strawberry slush floats, slippers and sandals line the walkway by a screen door. Inside is corporate headquarters for Hawai‘i’s most famous plate lunch stand. Fifty-seven years after it opened on Kapahulu Avenue, Rainbow burst out of the gates last year with a new franchise location and another this year. “We did our own homework and made our own list of pros and cons: expanding locally first, nationally first or internationally first,” marketing director Crystine Ito says. “This worked out better for us.”
Welcome to Rainbow Drive-In of the 21st century. The original location may look the same as it did during the heyday of drive-in restaurants, but now it’s in young hands: Ito is 29; third-generation CEO Chris Iwamura is 33. He’s the sole grandchild of founders Seiju and Ayako Ifuku, so his family draws around him like a mentoring cocoon. For his whole life, as he counted coins and helped his mother in the office, Iwamura knew that after he’d grown up and explored the world, he’d come home to run Rainbow. It was what his father, Harvey, and uncle Jim Gusukuma had done. So when Iwamura returned at 27 after working as a computer engineer in California, the family was ready.
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As the future CEO scooped rice, cashiered and got his MBA, the family brought in Ito for marketing and Hiroshi Fukui, veteran chef at Hiroshi Eurasion Tapas and L’Uraku, for operations. Fukui took one look at the 1,000-plate-lunch-a-day volume and started streamlining (“Who wants to butterfly 320 pounds of chicken four hours a day?”). When he told Gusukuma the family business was ripe for franchising, Gusukuma—who’d experimented with small expansions that sold sandwiches and bentos and was looking to retire—told him to take it to “the kids.” Fukui brought them a franchise dream team: Ted Davenport, Chip Jewett, Rick Nakashima and Lyle Matsuoka, whose combined decades in restaurants included the Hawai‘i franchises of Subway, Ruby Tuesday and Gyu-Kaku. They’d grown up on Rainbow’s plates. Iwamura and Ito ran through the pros and cons. The family elders were behind them. “We were all here,” Ito says, “and we were all ready to fully commit.”
“The pros of franchising are they do their own staffing, their own repairs, maintenance. The con is you put your brand out there in another person’s hands.”— Crystine Ito
This time, following loads of national and Japanese press and growing lines of locals and tourists, the kids knew exactly what people wanted: more Rainbows. They wrote their own franchise manual, trained the new franchise managers and quizzed staffers about Rainbow’s lore—any icon that spans three generations has customers who know more about it than employees. When did the drive-in open? Was it still family-owned? What didn’t work at the first franchise in Kalihi, they tweaked for the second at Pearlridge. The Rainbow Drive-In there, at Wai Makai—previously known as the Downtown food court—is run by franchise owners Mike and Jim Hickey, also owners of Pearl’s Korean BBQ and local franchises of Church’s Chicken and Arby’s.
If a corporate Rainbow sounds oxymoronic, it’s actually the opposite. Crowds at the Kalihi and Pearlridge counters are mostly locals celebrating shorter drives for the same plate lunches, burgers, chili and mac salad they grew up eating in Kapahulu. Menu-wise at least, these Rainbows are exact replicas of the original. “The pros of franchising,” Ito says, “are they do their own staffing, their own repairs, maintenance. The con is you put your brand out there in another person’s hands. Which is why that trust has to be there. If something were to happen at Kalihi it would reflect on us, right?”
It will fall to Iwamura to deliver the past—“the nostalgic feeling that we all grew up on,” as he puts it—to the present. The allure of Hawai‘i’s humble homegrown fare has brought the world to his counter; now he wants to bring Rainbow to other neighborhoods in Hawai‘i, then maybe Las Vegas, California, even Japan. There are queries from everywhere. “My personal goal is, yeah, we want to expand, but we want to be cautious about it. We want to be strategic,” he says. “One of my motivating factors is every place I grew up eating at is gone: Wisteria, Columbia Inn, Chowder House. We don’t want to see that leave. It’s something that’s unique to Hawai‘i and I personally want to see it continue.”
Kapaulu: Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. 3308 Kanaina Ave., (808) 737-0177;& Kalihi: Open 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. 1339 N. School St., (808) 784-1163; Pearlridge: open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 98-1005 Moanalua Road, (808) 488-3788, rainbowdrivein.com
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Creator of chains Peter Kim expands Liliha Bakery.
Peter Kim didn’t buy Liliha Bakery for the Coco Puffs. The creator and owner of multiple locations of Yummy’s Korean BBQ, Chow Mein Express, Lahaina Chicken Co. as well as The Signature Prime Steak & Seafood decided early on that succeeding in restaurants meant multiplying them. In March, the largest Liliha Bakery opened in Macy’s Ala Moana, five years after the Iwilei Liliha opened its doors. Against a trend of longtime family-owned restaurants expanding across O‘ahu, Liliha Bakery is the only one to do this not under its founding family, but with a completely different owner and vision.
HONOLULU Magazine: What were your impressions the first time you walked into LB?
Peter Kim: I wanted to continue their legacy of being a local business, and I had a pretty good idea how I could continue to service the Hawai‘i community. I hate to see local businesses going away. They had a tremendous system. I learned a lot from the founders and owners.
HM: How would you describe the legacy?
PK: We are approaching the company’s 70th anniversary next year and we want to continue the LB legacy by opening more locations. However, with the ever-changing markets, we have to change with consumer demands. And trying to hold onto the nostalgia of Liliha Bakery is a challenge. We continue to bake from scratch around the clock while adding new items little by little. Our workers participate in this because they have been there many years and this is how we keep the consistency of the products.
HM: What were the biggest lessons from nimitz that you took to ala moana?
PK: At Nimitz we only had one major problem and that was with the [point of sale] system. We had to change it out three times until we finally got one that would, humbly said, be able to handle our volume. At Ala Moana the biggest challenge is acquiring employees. It’s the first time ever we have this problem and it is the worst problem you can have in the restaurant business.
HM: How are your customers different at the three locations?
PK: LB1 has old-timers who come in to eat even three times a day. They live around the neighborhood. They are comfortable seeing the same people working there. And we get late-night people. LB2 Nimitz has larger groups of families, visitors who are going to and from the airport and Downtown clientele. LB3 Ala Moana has shoppers, mostly two-people parties, office groups, mall employees.