HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Food trends are evolving every day, with eateries putting a spin on almost everything. But after decades in business, Monica Toguchi Ryan wants to make sure one aspect of Highway Inn remains intact: Authenticity.
Founded in 1947 by Toguchi Ryan’s grandparents, the restaurant is primarily known for traditional Hawaiian food, such as pork or chicken lau lau and kalua pig.
“Highway Inn has been around for quite some time, it’s one of the older restaurants,” said Toguchi Ryan, third-generation CEO and president of Highway Inn. “But there’s not a lot of us, and there’s a need and a want for Hawaiian food and that authentic experience.”
Toguchi Ryan said Highway Inn is so old, it’s now a cultural landmark in the islands.
By the time she took over the restaurant from her father, who took it from his parents, Highway Inn was already 60 years old. Today, the family business in celebrating its 72nd year.
“When you have a business that's been around for that long, you recognize pretty immediately that you have something very precious,” Toguchi Ryan said.
“And there’s an appreciation for what we’re doing because we live in Hawaii, and what we’re doing is we’re speaking to the identity of Hawaiian food, which is part of Hawaiian culture.”
The restaurant life wasn’t always Toguchi Ryan’s only path.
Before taking over Highway Inn, she was a doctoral candidate studying counseling psychology at the University of Oregon.
But childhood memories of seeing how hard her grandparents, father and even longtime employees worked every day inspired her to join in on a multi-generational story.
“I had other options rather than come into this difficult, grimy business called the restaurant industry,” Toguchi Ryan said. “But I really felt that what my grandparents started was so unique and so special.”
One of the restaurant’s challenges is maintaining quality as they expand.
As more employees are hired to help make these family recipes, consistency is key in keeping the same quality and flavor that Toguchi Ryan’s grandfather started the restaurant on.
She said some of the eatery’s most vocal critics are longtime customers who ate at Highway Inn as children and continue to come back well into their senior years. If something doesn’t taste the same as they remember it, they’ll make sure to say something about it.
“Those are our customers that we really want to make sure that we are meeting their expectations because they will hold us to that standard,” Toguchi Ryan said.
But besides making sure the flavors stay true, these customers also play a significant part in keeping the memory of Toguchi Ryan’s grandmother alive.
Toguchi Ryan was 3 years old when her grandmother died in 1975.
Some customers still come in and share stories about her with her granddaughter.
“The way that I’ve come to know my grandmother is through their stories when they come in and eat with me at Highway Inn," she said.
Toguchi Ryan said she’s keeping her grandparents’ legacies alive by ensuring that each dish is made with the best quality and care.
Highway Inn employees take time to shred the meat for kalua pig and they spend extra effort on mixing the poi, she said.
“Cooking Hawaiian food is an act of love and labor and a lot of aloha in it,” Toguchi Ryan said. “It’s not necessarily food that looks like a piece of art on a plate, but it definitely is very laborious."
For Highway Inn, success comes from a concept that is timeless, Toguchi Ryan said.
She said the business works in both the 1940s and in the 21st Century because it centers on well-made Hawaiian food that hasn’t deviated much from its origins.
“We’re really fortunate that what we’re doing is really an extension of our identity collectively here for those of us who call Hawaii home,” Toguchi Ryan said. “Our brand started with locals. They have really been the ones that have supported us all these years, so we create dishes for the local palate.”