The Seafood Buffet King

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - October 17, 2007
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Toru Makino started the Japanese all-you-can-eat buffet in Hawaii with Todai
Toru Makino started the Japanese all-you-can-eat buffet in Hawaii with Todai

All-you-can-eat dining is as much a part of the Hawaii culinary landscape as Spam or two scoops. But when the Japanese seafood buffet hit town several years ago, expectations were raised and belts loosened.

I was curious about the origins of the gargantuan, never-ending dinner line and its incredible value for money, so I went to talk to Toru Makino. He’s the man who started the Todai chain, and who now owns Makino Chaya. Mr. Makino’s secret to success is partly thanks to an abundance of seafood and partly to lots of seating. He closed Makino Chaya on South King Street last year because he deemed it too small, and moved operations to the entire upstairs ewa side of Aloha Tower Marketplace, where the 10,000 square feet of open-air space accommodates thousands of people a week.

I asked Mr. Makino, who in conversation is both sharp and witty despite a seemingly stern exterior, how the first restaurants came about.

“Thirty years ago, Japanese food was not popular in America,” he says. “Customers would come into a restaurant, look at the menu and then walk out. They didn’t know shabu shabu or teppanyaki. Nobody understood what the food was.”

Determined to break through the barrier, Mr. Makino found himself one morning at an American Sunday brunch. “It was perfect,” he says, recalling his eureka moment. “Nobody had a menu.”

Believing that letting people see food was his answer, Mr. Makino in 1981 opened his first restaurant, Edokko, in Burbank. He was the cook and his wife was front of the house.

“The first day was terrible,” he recalls. “My wife, she kept running back and telling me ‘Toru, they want menus, they’re so confused.’ So I went out and kept telling the customers please, just eat.”

The next day his wife was running back into the kitchen for a different reason. Four couples came back with friends, and word of mouth spread like wildfire. He opened 17 restaurants in three years and began his model for success.

He sold his interests in Edokko and later in Todai because, he says, the companies were getting too big. Today there are two Makino Chayas in Hawaii (the second in Aiea) and plans are afoot to expand the chain to Guam and to the Mainland.

“Many shopping malls want us as a customer,” says the man with the ability to attract 600 people an hour to his restaurants.

But it’s in Hawaii that Mr. Makino feels people best understand his business.

“Of course people eat more here,” he says with a smile, “but we designed this restaurant for local people. They appreciate us.”

And if your idea of a buffet is a cheap and cheerful display with slightly sad salads and luke-warm lasagna, then you might want to think again. Makino Chaya offers Wagyu beef as part of the $12.98 buffet. There’s lobster too, and langoustines and crab, a sushi bar, teppanyaki chefs and more than 100 different dishes to choose from. And if you’re wondering how it’s all offered so inexpensively, then you should know that Makino Chaya reigns supreme in the world of food importing. Last month alone the company spent $90,000 on highly prized Wagyu beef.

But I couldn’t leave my meeting with the king of the crab leg buffet without asking where he likes to eat when he’s not working. Turns out it’s at Hakkei on Young Street.

“I love this kind of Japanese food,” he tells me.

And in a beautiful touch of irony that’s not lost on Mr. Makino, Hakkei seats just 25 people.

Happy eating!

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