Rainbow Drive-In: For 57 years, a destination for the oh-so-ono plate lunch

Rainbow Drive-In continues to serve customers for generations

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The neon sign of the Rainbow Drive-In flickers to life every night, illuminating the multicolored panels of paint around it, reflective of its namesake.

For almost 60 years, the restaurant welcomed customers of all ages for their hearty, unassuming fare.

Today, the restaurant is owned by Chris Iwamura, the third generation in his family to run the business.

“I think our strategy’s always to touch all generations and to be a generational spot,” Iwamura said. “We like to be a place where everyone, from grandma and grandpa to young kids, can come and have a family meal here.”

Iwamura’s grandfather founded the restaurant in October 1961. At the time, he noticed that many food trucks and small stands sold plate lunches, but there weren’t any permanent locations for families to come in and share a meal together.

So he opened the first Rainbow Drive-In in Kapahulu.

[Read more: From coco puffs to the Rainbow Special: Meet the people serving up nostalgia with every order]

Since then, Iwamura’s father and uncle, and most recently, Iwamura himself, have taken turns running the business.

“For us, family is our culture here,” Iwamura said. “We take care of each other, and that's, I think, important in family businesses.”

(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

Iwamura said extending that family environment to customers plays a role in what has kept their business so successful all these years.

“That's why our benches are so big — everyone can sit down and talk and have a great time,” Iwamura said. “We want to continue that and make sure that, as generations grow older, they bring their kids here.”

In continuing his family’s legacy, Iwamura seeks to preserve what his grandfather started.

He said consistency is important when serving the plate lunches they're known for.

“When you come here, you know exactly what you’re going to get,” Iwamura said. “We’ve been cooking it the same for 57 years now. We’ve added some stuff on, but when you come here, you always can count on the same experience every single time.”

Long-time patrons occasionally pull Iwamura aside to tell him that they used to eat there as kids and that it’s exactly as they remember.

“I think the nostalgia around it is part of it,” Iwamura said. “I don't ever foresee changing that nostalgia because it's generational. I think that's what speaks more to our continuation than changing the plates and that kind of stuff.”

But not everything has stayed the same, including the prices.

When Rainbow Drive-In first opened, chili and rice plates cost 50 cents. Barbecue beef plates were $1, and hamburgers were 25 cents.

Today, plates are a little under $10, and hamburgers are around $3.

(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

Over the years, the business has also changed with the times by using social media to connect with their audience. Iwamura said having an online presence is essential so people can know that they are here and ready to serve quality food.

“If that helps keep us relevant, especially with younger generations, then it's worth it,” Iwamura said. “It helps with the ease of communication between our customers and us.”

In addition to keeping in tune with how times are changing, Iwamura wants to remember the core values his grandfather founded the restaurant on. He said one of the biggest challenges is walking the fine line between what customers want to see in today’s trends and what their family has known all these years.

“It's a balance between staying nostalgic and moving forward at the same time,” Iwamura said.

As their business grew, Iwamura and his family also saw a need to expand to more locations.

Rainbow Drive-In is now available in three locations, Kahili and Pearlridge Center being their most recent ones.

“We felt that there were a lot of places that were closing, and a lot of local places that were shutting down, so we wanted to increase our presence at least on Oahu for people to go and get that nostalgic plate lunch,” Iwamura said.

Iwamura said he’s seen the closure of many local restaurants that he grew up eating at so he wanted to make sure the same didn’t happen to his grandfather’s business.

After he retires, he hopes to keep Rainbow Drive-In in the family, whether that means transitioning ownership to his children or to another relative.

"I think Hawaii takes pride in the culture that we’ve created here, and I think plate lunches are part of the local culture,” Iwamura said. “It’s very unique to Hawaii, and I think it’s an experience that we grew up on and we love.”

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