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.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
Monica Toguchi didn’t think opening a second Highway Inn would be this hard. After all, the original Highway Inn in Waipahu had opened 67 years ago and had been running smoothly, thanks to a staff that had worked there for two decades or more, and loyal diners who filled the restaurant, lingering over beef stew and naau puaa, pig intestines cooked with luau leaves.
Monica, 41, is the third generation to run Highway Inn. Her grandparents opened it in 1947, based on Hawaiian food that Seiichi Toguchi learned in restaurants where he washed dishes, and American food that he picked up working in the mess halls in the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
Monica had been thinking about a town location for Highway Inn for a while, to grow the company and to introduce a new audience to her grandfather’s legacy. Late last year, she opened the new Highway Inn in Kakaako, and I love it even more than the original. It is contemporary without forgetting its roots. It serves the same Hawaiian food as the original, down to the naau puaa, while offering new dishes such as whole fried akule and poi (fish and poi, seemingly a no-brainer for a Hawaiian food restaurant and yet so rare) and modern nostalgic desserts including poi Twinkies and a pineapple upside-down cake with kiawe-bean flour.
The Pineapple upside down cake, made with kiawe-bean flour.
The original Highway Inn sits in a nondescript strip mall and is furnished with red vinyl-upholstered cafeteria chairs. The new restaurant is done up in a modern plantation style, with the exposed ceiling finished a dusty copper red, the color of Waipahu’s red dirt. The new Highway Inn proves that Hawaiian food can exist outside of a hole in the wall. Its food and atmosphere appeal across generations, evidenced by a dining room full of young artists alongside developers and politicians shaping the neighborhood.
The melding of old and new seems so seamless at the second Highway Inn. But Monica didn’t quite realize what a new restaurant and new audience (not to mention a new staff) would mean for Highway Inn. She had to ask herself: How do you make a seven-decade-old Hawaiian-food restaurant relevant in the new Kakaako while preserving its soul?
Here, Monica reflects on her years of running the family business and transitioning it into the 21st century:
Hawaiian-food restaurants are kind of stuck in time, but I like to describe ourselves as timeless. Hawaiian restaurants are significant to our identity, to the experience of living in Hawaii.
When we first opened Highway Inn in Kakaako, we weren’t prepared for the demand. We just kind of flipped our open switch on and figured we would catch people that were passing by. We didn’t even have furniture, just three benches. The phones were ringing off the hook for takeout orders and people were coming in. I had to kind of step back a bit. When things start to get out of your control, you have to step back and think: Who are you? What do you represent? What do you want to represent? And what we represent—at least for me—is a time when people actually connected with one another, when people actually took the time to tell a story. In Highway Inn Kakaako’s urban community, everyone is so used to rush, rush, rush, rush, rush—get my food in 10 minutes, out the door to my next meeting, cell phone, email, everybody is on the 21st-century data highway. But when you walk into Highway Inn, you should slow down. At least for the half an hour, 45 minutes, one hour, however long you spend with us.
In Waipahu, we have a much more diverse group of people—for a lot of them, maybe it’s their day off, they’re spending time with their family, maybe they’re running errands. But here, our lunch crowd is much more of an office crowd, people who are restricted in their time. Sometimes we have really big orders—a 30-plate takeout order, and all the orders and dine-in customers come in within one hour. You can only do so much!
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.
Inside Highway Inn.
Lau lau combo plate
Fried akule or opelu
Pineapple upside down cake
It’s such a life journey, right? In order to do what you do, you have to really know who you are. If you don’t know who you are, you’re going to be all over the place. So part of that process is really understanding, What is Highway Inn? What have we been doing for 66 years? When people come in, I always make it a point to let people know we are a Hawaiian restaurant, we’ve been serving Hawaiian food for 66 years. We built our reputation on our laulau, poi, that type of food. We do some things like fish and chips and creative desserts, but it’s not to take away from who we are, because we’re not trying to morph into something we’re not.
And that’s probably been the biggest challenge for me—how do you preserve your personal identity in an urban neighborhood? How do you take something so old and still stay relevant in the 21st century?
I think that goes back to, whether it’s business or life in general, if you understand who you are and what values are really, truly important to you, evolving is not as difficult as it may appear to be, seem because you know who you are, and you always go back to your roots. We have roots. Things don’t have to be too complicated if you have roots. Maybe that’s what our grandparents tried to teach us. Whether that’s true in terms of cultural identity or whether that’s true in terms of value, like a work ethic.
That’s something I try to teach my staff. But I may come off as being the B-I-T-C-H. I’m like, “Well, I went to this school for bitches, and I graduated summa cum laude.”
Coming into Kakaako was a little like breaking up with someone, dating somebody new and realizing the guy I broke up with was really good. The staff in Waipahu has been with me for a long time—20, 30, 40 years. And you don’t realize how much you take that for granted, because everything is so smooth, because they have that institutional knowledge. We’ve had someone who’s been with us for 45 years. She’s worked with three generations—my grandfather, my father, myself.
I’m really proud of the food that we serve. There are 1.4 million opinions out there, and I make no apologies for the food that we make because we’ve been doing this for so long. It’s not anything that complicated—it’s really simple food. But like any kind of comfort food, it touches the soul. Like a song or a smell, it reminds you of something and it gives you a fond memory. And so when you come to eat our hamburger, you really should experience it like you’re eating your grandmother’s hamburger.
If there is no community to protect and preserve this kind of food, then we won’t have it. There will be no reason for any Hawaiian restaurant to exist. But the community recognizes that it is important and supports us. I’ve been very, very fortunate.
Highway Inn Kakaako, 680 Ala Moana Blvd #105, (808) 954-4955, myhighwayinn.com.