The Aloha At The Willows

By Kyle Nakayama
Wednesday - April 23, 2008
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By Kyle Nakayama
Managing Director at the Willows Restaurant

Sharing the aloha at the Willows - that’s our entire business plan at the Willows Restaurant: Share Aloha.

Our goals are simple:

Provide a special gathering place for guests.

Maintain an atmosphere that’s reminiscent of older, gentler times in Hawaii.

Treat guests and ohana members (our staff) the way we’d treat our favorite aunty or uncle.

Oh, and by the way, you can eat here, too.

From 1944 to 1994, kama’aina and visitors alike have enjoyed Hawaii’s original garden restaurant located in the heart of Mo’ili’ili. Ask any uncle, aunty, grandma or grandpa for their favorite Willows memory and they’ll give you at least five. Fifty years later, the last bowl of Shrimp Curry with Mango Chutney and the last slice of Mile High Coconut Cream pie were served, and the doors were closed.

So how could we possibly compete with these memories when reopening the doors to the Willows in 1999? Surely business had evolved into an entirely new animal since the 1940s, and the restaurant business was no exception.

Nowadays, it’s all about profit margins and your rate of return on investment. Restaurants were opening and closing every day, and chefs were now celebrities! After nearly a year of planning, researching and consulting, the answer was simple. Share aloha again.

For 50 years, the Willows was carefully cared for and nurtured by the likes of Emma McGuire Hausten, Kathleen Perry and Randy Lee. Our job: Don’t screw it up. Already a landmark in Hawaii, the Willows didn’t need us to re-identify it. It was already clear that the Willows is a gathering place for all generations, and our goal was simply to maintain that.

Nolan Nohara, Kim Otsuka, Tracy Silva-Kong, Chantel Oh, Kim Izumoto and Kyle Nakayama
Nolan Nohara, Kim Otsuka, Tracy Silva-Kong, Chantel Oh, Kim Izumoto and Kyle Nakayama share the aloha the Willows

“The customer is always right.” We hear it again and again in the service industry, and for good reason. Priority No. 1 needs to be to take care of our customers. So how do you achieve that on a daily basis? Well, one of management’s primary goals is to take care of our “ohana members,” our employees. Treat them as if they were indeed a part of your family, and they will treat guests the same way. Well-respected employees will have respect for their work place and, in turn, represent it well.

So for the past eight years we’ve been running a business based on the sharing of aloha. But we can’t forget that the Willows is a restaurant, and a restaurant cannot survive without great food. Luckily for us, we have a great chef. We are so fortunate to have had Jay Matsukawa as our executive chef for the past five years. His crew includes sous chefs Randy Kodama, Richard Ufano and Wilson Coloma, not to mention a dozen or so line cooks, prep cooks and dishwashers.

Chef Jay is overqualified to be our chef. After five years, he knows our kitchen better than I, which presents another challenge in itself. Not only do we have to constantly reinvent ourselves to keep the restaurant fresh, but also keep Chef Jay’s creative juices flowing. While our weekly buffet is constantly changing, special events such as our “Hops and Grinds” beer club, holiday menus, five-course wine or beer dinners, weddings, graduation parties, and buyout gala fundraisers all help to keep Chef Jay on his toes.

While food is the real star of any restaurant, it also is the careful planning and leadership of our management team consisting of Keri Endo, Debbie Frette, Tracy Silva-Kong, Kim Otsuka, Chantel Oh, Nolan Nohara, Kim Izumoto and Melissa Suen that maintains the Willows’ highest standards of service.

Now, more than ever, our business model will be put to the test. We’ve recently acquired the rights to manage and run all wedding and banquet facilities at Luana Hills Country Club in Mauanwili. A new facility, new scenic views, new ohana members and, of course, new guests all will undoubtedly expect their fair share of aloha.

Oh, and by the way, you can still eat the Shrimp Curry with Mango Chutney here, too.

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