After nearly a week of silence, chef Lee Anne Wong spoke about the closure of Kaimuki craft cocktail and noodle bar Hale Ohuna on Monday.
“I’m learning some hard lessons,” she said during an interview at Koko Head Cafe, where she was introducing three new specialty menu items she created for Jamba Juice Hawaii. “I was pretty sore all week, but I think every day I gain more perspective. It’s definitely a growth period and very humbling to see what it is that people are looking for.”
Hale Ohuna, which was once known as SALT Kitchen and Tasting Bar before reopening with a new concept in September, was an extension of a partnership between Wong and owner Kevin Hanney that started in March 2014. After Hanney moved 12th Avenue Grill, which opened in 2004, to a new location nearby, he teamed with Wong to corner the brunch market with Koko Head Cafe.
Unfortunately, Hale Ohuna never enjoyed the same community support Koko Head Cafe did after opening in September. A rigorous work schedule, which included frequent trips out of state to promote both restaurants, kept Wong out of the kitchen more than she preferred. Slower-than-expected revenues, coupled with the face of the new enterprise being not physically present, quickly steered things in the wrong direction.
“It was a combination of a couple of classic bad things. It was undercapitalization. We opened at the wrong time of year. Unfortunately, our opening was pushed back to September, and that’s the time of year when the season dies. It wasn’t just us. Everyone had a tough September and October.
“Hawaii is very much word of mouth. We were never reviewed, so that was part of it. Nobody knew we were open. If we did the volume we expected, it would have been a different story. But we didn’t do the numbers we needed to do.
“I also think part of it was trying to break down the walls of noodle culture here. I think when we first opened, we were compared to a lot of other noodle places and ramen shops, and that’s not what we were trying to do. We were the first restaurant with a truly comprehensive sake menu, plus a huge Japanese whisky and craft beer list. Our beverage program was tremendous versus our actual menu, and it took people a while to sort through that.
“Part of what I like to do is not do what everyone else is doing. I like being the trend-setter versus being a follower. Even the short time we were open, I laid the groundwork for some new things.
“Maybe this neighborhood needs something simpler. I don’t know what Kevin is going to do with the next incarnation across the street. Right now, my focus is to continue to build Koko Head Cafe. We have something really special here.
Wong, a native of New York who graduated from the International Culinary Center (formerly known as the French Culinary Institute) and gained mainstream fame after being featured on the first season of Bravo’s “Top Chef” cooking competition, has also worked under industry heavyweights including chefs Marcus Samuelsson and Jean Georges Vongrichten.
But like the entrepreneur she is, Wong isn’t waiting around for the next opportunity. When Jamba Juice Hawaii came calling, she jumped at the chance to share her juicing and smoothie skills.
“Juicing is one of the things I have in my life on a regular basis,” she said. “I wanted to make sure to use ingredients that I like to use. The idea was to create local flavor. This was really easy for me and a lot of fun.”
The three new specialized menu items Wong created will debut at all Jamba Juice Hawaii locations on New Year’s Eve. Two smoothies use acai as a core ingredient, while a new Backyards Bowl combines pitaya fruit with yogurt, chia seeds, almond milk, pineapple and honey topped with almonds, granola, banana and coconut.
The Cocoa Moco smoothie blends acai with yogurt, chocolate chips, almonds, banana, honey and pumpkin seeds, while the Koko Head smoothie adds kale, almond milk, chia seeds, banana, honey and blueberries to acai.
The Backyards Bowl will be priced at $8.99 (16-ounce serving) and $11.99 (24-ounce serving); the Cocoa Moco and Koko Head smoothies will cost $5.69, $5.99 and $6.69 for a 16-, 22- or 28-ounce serving, respectively.