HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Monica Toguchi Ryan throws on a pair of gloves as she squeezes into the cramped kitchen at Highway Inn in Kakaako. It’s just before the typical lunch rush and the place is already buzzing: Burgers sizzle on the grill and the smell of lau lau and kalua pig permeates the air.
Looking at Toguchi Ryan, her hands nimbly putting the finishing touches on dishes, you’d never guess that she’d planned a very different life for herself.
She was pursuing a career in psychology ― had actually started working on a doctoral degree ― when life took a turn and she found herself carrying on a family tradition as the president and CEO of the business her grandparents started.
“I had other options rather than come into this difficult, grimy business called the restaurant industry,” she quipped. “But I really felt that what my grandparents started was so unique and so special.”
All across the state, there are countless other diehards like Toguchi Ryan ― people who work long hours, sacrifice weekends and holidays, and pour over balance sheets to make sure that some of Hawaii’s most beloved eateries keep their doors open, welcoming customers and making them smile, bite by bite.
These are the families who bring you Liliha Bakery’s famous coco puffs — who come in early to make sure that classic loco moco plate lunch at Rainbow Drive-In tastes just as amazing as it always has.
And oftentimes, they’re doing it ― despite mounting costs and labor challenges and a changing customer demands ― because they believe in carrying on something bigger than themselves.
For Toguchi Ryan, it’s the personal story behind her business — a legacy her grandparents built in 1947, followed by her dad carrying on the torch — that pushes her through the grueling work of running a restaurant.
“I think those businesses that continue to be around — what they’ve been able to successfully do is they’ve been able to take something they’ve done very well for a long time and continue to do that successfully,” Toguchi Ryan said.
Hawaii has said goodbye to lots of its favorite eateries in recent years.
Among the most recent to close their doors: The Willows, Wailana Coffee House and Libby Manapua.
Experts say every business is unique, but the most common reason for a longtime local favorite calling it quits is simple: It’s downright tough to do business in Hawaii.
"It can be a multitude of issues, but at the end of the day, it's because they're not making money," said Michael Miller, who serves on the executive board of the Hawaii Restaurant Association.
“In order to be in business, you have to make money.”
And just one obstacle can knock you off course — like the Honolulu rail project.
Anna Miller’s, a diner-style restaurant along Kamehameha Highway near Pearlridge Center, said rail construction has been taking a bite out of its business.
On top of that, the overall climate of the labor market ― with rising costs and a low unemployment rate ― is also making it “harder and harder to stay in business right now," said Wade Hashizume, area manager for Anna Miller’s and Bravo Restaurant and Bar.
“We have a hard time hiring people, and costs have really escalated,” said “It’s hard to do business — cost of food, cost of utilities.”
Despite that, Hashizume said he’s always looking for unique ways to improve.
Several miles east is another diner-style restaurant: Liliha Bakery.
You might recognize it from its famed dessert ― the coco puff — a pastry filled with chocolate pudding and topped with a dollop of rich, macadamia nut chantilly.
“We sell thousands a day,” said Angela Choi, who handles the restaurant’s marketing. “I think it’s also more special because it’s exclusive to Hawaii.”
Liliha Bakery opened in 1950 as a modest diner and bakery in the heart of Honolulu.
In 2008, a restaurateur named Peter Kim — owner of the company behind Yummy Korean BBQ — bought the bakery and opened another location on Nimitz Highway. And just this past March, Liliha Bakery opened its newest location at Ala Moana Center, a premier spot on the third floor of Macy’s.
[Also in this series: Liliha Bakery: Did someone say coco puffs?]
Choi said striking a balance between selling traditional items like the coco puff, as well as experimenting with new recipes — like the popular, Japan-inspired poi mochi donut — help bring in more customers. But ultimately, Liliha Bakery wouldn’t exist today without local support, she said.
“At the original location, we have some customers that come in a few times a day, every day,” she said. “It’s those kinds of examples that help us exist.”
Rainbow Drive-In has also been feeding Hawaii families for decades.
On a typical Thursday morning, crowds of people — from tourists to residents — form long lines in front of the restaurant’s walk-up window to get their hands on a traditional plate lunch.
Golden brown, fried mahi mahi or gravy-topped hamburger patties with two eggs served over rice are just a few items customers feast on while seated outside on long, picnic-style tables.
[Also in this series: Rainbow Drive-In: For 57 years, a destination for the oh-so-ono plate lunch]
Chris Iwamura, third-generation CEO and owner, runs this bustling restaurant, which he describes as a "generational spot" where "everyone, from grandma and grandpa, to young kids can come and have a family meal here."
“We want to continue that and make sure that, as generations grow older, they bring their kids here,” Iwamura said. “One of my main motivations moving home and taking over the business was I was tired of seeing all the places I grew up eating at close.”
The eatery was established in 1961 by his grandfather, Seiju Ifuku, who wanted a permanent place to sell traditional plate lunches at a time when small stands and food trucks dominated the streets.
Decades later, swarms of people continue to crowd the restaurant characterized by its large neon sign. It's not only a convenient spot for tourists, but longtime residents keep coming back for more.
Iwamura said the eatery’s regulars love its consistency. So much hasn’t changed for decades.
"When you come here, you know exactly what you're gonna get," Iwamura said.
“You’re not gonna get a super fancy thing. You’re just gonna get your standard plate lunch. And we’ve been cooking it the same for 57 years now.”
Another secret ingredient to success, Iwamura said, is taking risks. Just over the past year, Rainbow Drive-In opened two new franchise locations in Kalihi and at Pearlridge Center in Aiea.
"We felt that there were a lot of places that were closing," Iwamura said.
“We wanted to increase our presence at least on Oahu for people to go and get that nostalgic plate lunch and go and experience Rainbows.”
Iwamura added taking risks also means using social media to your advantage.
As an early adopter of social media, Rainbow Drive-In has garnered more than 21,000 followers on Instagram and nearly 4,000 reviews on Yelp.
Michael Miller, of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said having a strong social media presence and consistently engaging with customers is vital to ensuring a successful business.
"People want to feel a part of something, so if they can feel a part of your brand, whether it's nostalgia or not, you start to win, and winning feels great," Miller said.
And, he added, “When you’re winning, you attract other people.”
Back at Anna Miller’s, Melissa Chang, a Hawaii food blogger and social media guru, sits in a booth and snaps photos of her egg salad sandwich at different angles, prepping her next Instagram post.
It’s just a day in the life for Chang, who never leaves home without her camera to snap food photos.
Chang, who has been blogging about food for years, says social media is one of the most important tools that any restaurant — especially in Hawaii — can use to stay on eaters’ radars.
“I think in Hawaii, social media really helps the local market,” Chang said.
“Because we’re so isolated from the rest of the world, we depend on social media to get our information. And local people, they help local people. They like to support other local people.”
Chang said Hawaii also has a unique market because people here tend to gravitate toward nostalgic eateries. “I think Hawaii tends to be one of those places that likes nostalgia just because a lot of us keep living here for the rest of our lives. We like to remember all the good times we had," she said.
Chang, who also runs a public relations firm, assists clients with their social media strategies.
Among her clients: Anna Miller’s.
[Also in this series: Anna Miller’s: Slide into a booth and grab a piece of pie at this Aiea favorite]
With a low-key diner setting, Anna Miller’s is that go-to spot where families spend a laid-back evening catching up over homestyle dishes like chicken pot pie, fresh strawberry pie and other comfort foods.
The location has been in Hawaii since 1973 after the original owner, Stanley Miller, decided to bring the restaurant — named after his grandmother — to Hawaii from the mainland.
As one of the oldest tenants at Pearlridge Center, Anna Miller’s has remained a fixture in the Aiea community — and has seen businesses around it come and go, proof of a challenging and fast-changing economy.
For now, Hashizume said he feels lucky that the restaurants’ longevity is also one of the reasons why customers continue to dine there.
“It’s a family place," he said. "We’re the place to come on the weekend with your grandma and your grandpa. We’ve been lucky that way.”
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