(1) What restaurant concepts would work in Hawai`I but just haven't been tried or implemented effectively yet?
Maybe this should be a separate thread...what are some food-related businesses missing from Hawaii? In general, food related businesses at a gourmand/foodie level don't always do well in Hawaii (look at the demise of the upscale market, Strawberry Connection in the industrial part of Honolulu, which moved closer to town and didn't survive). However, my surf-deprived husband, son, new kid-to-be and I would like to return some day (maybe the next 5-10 years) and possibly open or promote/market one of the following, which could do well in Honolulu:
Artisan bakery (i.e. La Brea in LA or Macrena in Seattle)
Restaurant with a great dessert menu, perfect for after the Honolulu symphony/Hawaii Opera Theatre/Blaisdell concerts (there's a fab restaurant in Portland that has a dessert menu of at least 20 desserts with wonderful dessert wines and ports and coffees)
High-end gourmet store like Strawberry Connection in a better location
Wine and cheese shop
Medium-priced Alan Wongs-type restaurant (entrees in the teens, not as fancy with the plating)
Trader Joes or something like it (maybe Trader Kimos)
Whole Foods or other organic market/deli
A family-friendly restaurant with good food (not just hot dogs and mac-and-cheese)
A medium priced steakhouse (notch down from Ruth Chris)
A great fish/seafood shop with wonderful selections of poke (like Tamashiro Market, but closer to town)
An Atkins-themed restaurant (horror the thought!)
i'm on the same page as you are...i'm sort of looking to start my own business and i'm wondering what would fit here. i guess that is one reason why i followed fifi's advice in starting this thread. one thing i've noticed is that no one in hawaii is really on-line...notice the geographic section of the discussion forum...if anyone talks about hawaii it is as a tourist ...
of your ideas...there are several that have a fighting chance (imho of course):
wine and cheese shop
trader kimo's but seriously!
family friendly restaurant that isn't "diner" style (not rainbows, not L&L, not grace's etc etc)
maybe not so good:
there are already hundreds of steak houses (yeah, i tend to exaggerate)
the "farmers' market" behind ward center/warehouse has the poke market...but you could do it better, i'm sure
NO ATKINS! (that's just me talking)
I've been thinking about your situation. I'm removed from the market, but FWIW, I'd guess the most viable ideas you have are a dessert emphasis restaurant, a medium-priced Alan Wong's type restaurant, a family-friendly restaurant (depends on a lot of factors), and a Trader Joe's type market. I think the customer's concept of value is a governing factor. Word of mouth is pretty powerful there, so you'd want to factor that in.
Tapas/small plates could be really cool, but the pricing issue is tricky, due to aforementioned ...err... thriftyness.
I also would add that I think Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are well run businesses, and would be formidable competitors, should they ever try to establish themselves there. See Wal-Mart.
Back to the food: rainbow jello.
(2) Why is there such a big gulf between everday (e.g. plate lunch) cuisine and high-end (e.g. HRC) dining? Granted, a gap exists in every cuisine, but seems particular large in Hawai`I. What's the prospect for some that would help bridge this gap?
this brings me to another point...with hawaii home to at least three james beard award winners for best chef...and with such an ethnic diversity which includes culinary diversity, why is there such a lack of really good moderate restaurants on the islands? i think that most of us would like to be able to go out and NOT eat at tony roma's or some other corporate chain...also, to not bust the wallet and go to a hotel/resort restaurant. there's so little in the middle!
As for restaurants, I agree that the middle segment is kinda empty. Several of those well-known guys have done middle level things like Kaka'ako Kitchen, Sam Choy's Breakfast, Lunch and Crab, the Pineapple Room, etc with mixed results, IMHO. I think there are 3 reasons - that the low end places are actually pretty dang good, people have a bias that only "fancy kine haole food" should be expensive and people are used to large portions. Not that it's soooo different from any other place, but it means it is competitive, and can be a little harder to find the right balance of quality, quantity and presentation. You gotta know your customers and listen to what they want.
I couldn't agree more that HRC did marvels transforming high end food in Hawaii. I'm going to tiptoe gingerly into this discussion because I am a home cook and not a restauranteur. Seems to me that HRC always catered to the visitor trade primarily. Sure locals loved to go to Roys and felt more comfortable there than with the "international" cuisine of the big hotels. But HRC remains (I suspect because I've been away from the islands for nearly a decade) high end. And for locals the economy has not been that good. The efforts that people have already mentioned to bridge high end and local food have not moved ahead nearly as rapidly as I expected when I left the islands.
I'm going to have to think this through. But my suspicion is that one of the problems is that mainlanders and other visitors still haven't the faintest idea about what's going on in Hawaii. The Hawaii Tourist Board, Jim Dole et al discovered a marvelous formula for drawing visitors to the islands but it makes the local scene invisible. It does so quite deliberately.
I think of the novelist James Michener. I'm not promoting his work but he was married to a Hawaii Japanese and did think a good bit about the problems of the islands (not always to the liking of people there). Anyway in his novel on Spain, he tells a story, true or not I don't know. In the 60s, the powers that were in the Hawaii state government decided to try a new kind of promotion. Hey, they said, we are a fascinating culture, great Pacific Island and Asian resources, one of the most mixed cultures on earth, an augury of the future. Let's promote this along with our great beaches.
Result (according to Michener) tourism plummeted. Hula and natural bounty was what visitors wanted. So ever since, it's been computers for the locals, luaus for visitors (his phrase more or less).
I don't think HRC has cracked this nut. Maybe no one wants to. May be no one can. Hawaii remains tiny so the visitor market has presumably to be included for any even modestly ambitious restaurant.
What is needed is the entrepreneur who can sell not just food, not just a simplistic notion of fusion foods, but Hawaii's secret. And that, I think, is the sheer glory of what local people have achieved (well, are achieving): a real political and economic transformation of the islands since the 50s. And with it, and indissolubly linked to it, a real grass roots fusion cuisine.
Now that would be revolutionary. But how to pull it off? Well I'm not a restauranteur.
Thanks again for your comments, caroline. My disclaimer - I go to Hawaii once a year, and I don't get to eat out all that much because of visiting with family. But IMHO, I think one of the mistakes of HRC has been the emphasis on lightness, delicacy and refinement. Wonton napoleons, crab spring rolls, fancy salads, etc. I think that's the wrong way to go. As you say, there's a disconnect between the roots of it and the target customers. To me, local food is essentially soul food of Hawaii. And as such, I believe it's possible to elevate kalua pig, kau yuk (Chinese red pork belly), and whatever else the same way that the gutbucket food of France becomes the fad dish, like lamb shanks or gumbo for New Orleans. Or in contemporary Southern cuisine, they have brought grits and collards to new levels.
A better strategy for the cuisine, IMHO, it to do those dishes that no one wants to make anymore for reasons of time, scale, hassle, smelliness, hard to find ingredients or whatever. There's got to be some substance there, or it's just like something you can find in any other city. Sure, use new techniques, new presentation, and put your twist on it. But if chefs can procure opah and moi in NYC, the Hawaii guys better be doing something better or at least different with their homegrown ingredients. So in a sense, I think it's a "vision thing".
The weakness in my argument is the other issue you brought up - lots of people want the easily digested image of Hawaii, with pre-packaged omiyage(souvenir gifts), puka shell leis, pineapple and papaya with every meal - not the "real" Hawaii. It would be bad business not to include visitors in your business plan. But there are a decent percentage of visitors that go to the areas and the outer islands and look for spots where locals go, just like any other destination.
I suppose for restauranteurs, it's a matter of what route to take to what kind of success do you want? How much Hawaii needs to be in that formula?
skchai (me) wrote:
There are actually a lot of successful middle-range dining places in Honolulu. The only problem is that they aren't really a successful bridge between local grinds and HRC. Most of these places would normally be classified as Asian ethnic food places, usually staffed by relatively recent immigrants, rather than local or Hawaiian. Some of the "stars" of the mid-range in my own limited experience:
[list of favorite restaurants deleted]
The missing category, however, consists of the mid-range "local" restaurants, i.e. restaurants that in some way reflect the particular integration of cultures that has taken place on these islands, rather than discrete elements of one or another of those cultures. The main cause, IMHO, is that syncretic local food has a tradition dating from the plantation days, hence the emphasis has been on quantity, thrift, and speed rather than dining experience. Later waves of Asian immigrants, usually from a high SES background, basically created an ethnically-subsegmented middle dining layer, which then could appeal to upwardly mobile sansei, yonsei, etc. without necessarily being "their" food. High-end, however, has always been dominanted by tourist-oriented restaurants and a few special occasion "continental" places frequented by locals, e.g. Michel's, Canlis, et al. in the old days and John Dominis even now.
HRC has not really eliminated this type of stratification, since it basically takes elements of the local food concept, as well as the various ethnic dining concepts, and finally the ideology of fusion, then packages them as haute cuisine for the newer generation of tourists, who no longer want to eat the same foods that they could find back home.
There is not as much financial incentive market this back down to the mid-level. Furthermore, from an intellectual point of view it is actually a much more difficult task than building up HRC. HRC, as haute cuisine, can be "artifical" in the sense of being self-consciously creative; indeed this is considered a virtue as long as it does not do too much violence to the taste buds. "Fusion" has always been a misnomer because the provenance of each individual ingredient or component of a dish is usually obvious. Local plate-lunch type grinds, on the other hand, have evolved slowly over several decades and reflect that evolution in that they comfort the tastebuds of those who have been raised our particular blend of cultures.
So how do we approach the middle range of dining while retaining a local flavor? A "top-down" option, as reflected by Sam Choy's Breakfast, Lunch, and Crab (on Nimitz Hwy nr Hilo Hatties), as well as Alan Wong's Pineapple Room (in Ala Moana Macy's), is to spawn a "casual" version of a celeb HRC chef's fine dining establishment. That's a good idea, and both places turn out good food, but the results "betray" (to use a too-strong word) their origins by offering for the most part slightly cheaper versions of HRC, not a bridge to local food in any meaningful sense. And for dinner, at least, the prices are not even much cheaper than in the fine-dining places.
The alternative, a "bottom-up" one, is to sell glorified versions of plate lunch. Choy's BLC does some of that on its lunch menu, with its fried poke and mixed "bento" plates, and manages to pull in a big local crowd. Russell (3660) Siu's Kaka`ako Kitchen (abutting Ward Center) is even a plate lunch place in ambience, adding things like grilled mahi with capers to the usual katsu n' teri.
Finally, there are those that try eclectic approachs. Onjin's Cafe (near Ward Center, across from Office Depot) takes a simultaneous top-and-bottom approach, selling styro-clam lid containers for dinner (to go only) filled with HRC-type mains. Finally, Big City Diner (on Waialae Ave. in Kaimuki) takes a middle-middle approach, juxtaposing American diner classics like meatloaf with a wide range of typical mid-range Asian ethnic dishes such as braised kalbi, etc.
Back to the main issue, if there is one. Which of these will actually work in bridging local food with HRC in a middle-range, popular dining concept? I dunno. I guess the missing ingredient is time - you can't rush these things. As HRC innovations and, more importantly, sensitivity to ingredients are assimilated (digested?) by the local population, it will become easier and easier to come up with dining concepts that reflect these influences and yet fit in with the resources and aesthetics of mainstream local culture. . .