Serving Up Plantation-style Aloha

Jo McGarry
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Friday - November 10, 2006
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Brian Y. shows off a pineapple pie and Angie S. holds a pineapple grown on Helemano Plantation
Brian Y. shows off a pineapple pie and Angie S. holds a
pineapple grown on Helemano Plantation

In the 14 years I’ve lived in Hawaii, I’ve driven past Helemano Plantation more times than I can remember. Last week I finally decided to stop and go inside for lunch. What I discovered was more than a place offering a good value meal, I found a place where that elusive aloha spirit thrives.

There’s a canteen-style dining room on the 45-acre property where lunch is served daily from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. There’s a breakfast service (loco moco, scrambled eggs, homemade pastries) that begins at 8 a.m. at the adjacent Bake Shop, and on Sundays there’s a brunch that begins at 10 a.m. At first glance, Helemano’s dining room looks functional and institutional, but if you look past the Formica tables, the cash register and the lines of chaffing dishes, you’ll see a heart-warming sight - a staff that cares about every customer, servers so proud to come to work that they rarely take a day off, and a menu that features fruits and vegetables grown right here on the rural property.

ORI (Opportunities for the Retarded Inc.) was founded in 1980 by Susanna Cheung, and Helemano Plantation, with its residential center for the mentally disabled and restaurant where clients could gain real work experience, was completed just four years later.

“There are nine homes on the 45 acres here,” says program director Yvonne de Luna, “and everything that is done with regard to the restaurant and the bake shop (apart from the cooking) is done by clients.”

There are about 15-20 clients working in the restaurant, and another group of trained workers who travel to Schofield Barracks each day to work there.

“Everyone is very proud of the work we do here,” says PR director Ron Renshaw. “Our clients take their jobs very seriously, and they get quite territorial about their positions. They feel that if they can’t be here, then the work won’t be done as well!”

I know many restaurant owners pray for such dedicated staff.

The $8.50, all-you-can-eat buffet lunch varies daily, but there’s a standard Chinese style to most of the dishes. There’s a salad bar and a dessert station, and Cheung, an excellent cook in her own right, often previews her newest dishes at the buffet line. When I was there last week, I tasted incredibly good short ribs in a red wine reduction that Cheung told me she’d perfected after eating Roy Yamaguchi’s version. The kitchen staff also makes excellent char siu pork - so good that I took a box home with me after lunch.

The vegetable garden provides most of the produce for the restaurant, and if you really want to pick up something special for the holidays then order one of Helemano’s homemade fresh pineapple or coconut pies.

“We don’t make them for everyday sale,” says Yvonne, “but if you call to order, then we’ll make them specially.” I loved the fresh pineapple pie, with its chunky, sweet pieces of North Shore pineapple beneath a perfect, flaky crust. They’d make a really different addition to your Thanksgiving table this year.

This is such a unique part of Hawaii that everyone should visit. I’m ashamed to say it took me so long to get there and that my preconceived notions about the restaurant had little bearing on the great work that actually goes on here each day.

If you want to see a restaurant where people care as much about each other as they do about their food, then make the drive to Helemano Plantation.

Helemano Plantation 64-1510 Kamehameha Hwy. Wahiawa 622-3929

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