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Don Ho's grill goes bust; Kailua barely goes boom

By Erika Engle

LAST UPDATED: 2:26 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Don Ho's Island Grill has closed.

Rumors abound about what happened to the storied eatery and watering hole that opened in 1998 bearing the legendary entertainer's name.

There is no answer at the restaurant's phone number, nor is there a recording offering any explanation. One Aloha Tower Marketplace management official declined even to confirm the restaurant's closure, while others could not be reached.

A sign on the door says, "Sorry for the inconvenience closed for maintenance," but at 6:48 p.m. Tuesday the door was open. Two men and a woman inside the restaurant confirmed it is closed but said that negotiations are under way to open it for special events. As for the owners, "they're done," one of the men said. One man in the trio expressed his intention to become the new owner. Popular karaoke events staged by Al Waterson & You Productions have been discontinued, they said.

Phillip Johnson bought the restaurant from longtime restaurateur Fred Livingston in September, but because Johnson lacked the restaurant industry experience Aloha Tower Marketplace required of restaurant tenants, his company PJJ Restaurant LLC took on Don Ho's manager, Mike Maielua, as a partner, Livingston said.

"Phillip Johnson should write a book on how to ruin a very successful restaurant that I ran for 13 years, that was doing $2 million a year," Livingston said.

Neither Johnson nor Maielua could be reached. Johnson's parents in Oregon are the guarantors for lease payments through 2011, Livingston said. Susan Johnson, reached Tuesday evening, declined comment.

Since the death of entertainer Don Ho in 2007, a one-time part-owner of the restaurant, successive owners have paid a royalty to Ho's estate for the right to use his marquee name.

Sustainability plan for fireworks

Neither a last-minute heavy downpour of rain nor a lack of funds stopped the annual Kailua Fourth of July fireworks display Monday night.

In addition to the almost-got-there funds raised by Kailua business owner-donors and community members, an almost equally last-minute $25,000 donation from Sunetric ensured the patriotic pyrotechnic show would go on for more than just a few minutes.

"We were not going to cancel," said Brook Gramann, Kailua fireworks coordinator and owner of the Brand Strategy Group marketing consultancy and Lanikai Bath & Body in Kailua. However, had the last influx of cash not arrived, "we were going to have a shorter fireworks show," of maybe eight minutes, instead of "a good 15 minutes."

The large donation extended the show, but Gramann was emphatic about acknowledging Castle Medical Center, Foodland, Kalapawai Market and Deli "and all the people who come in every year" with donations, she said. Since many Kailua businesses have been buoyed in recent years by an increasing number of Japanese visitors, they gave generously toward tsunami relief efforts — and didn't have as much in the till to put toward fireworks, Gramann said. "Next year we'll do (fireworks fundraising) with more advanced notice."

While many of Kailua's small businesses were not able to donate cash, they did participate in the $20 coupon book that became available for purchase June 18. The coupon books offer discounts at restaurants and a variety of other Kailua-area merchants.

The fireworks show "has to become sustainable," Gramann said adding that efforts to secure sustaining sponsors would continue.

A meeting today will tally proceeds from coupon book sales, which she believes will be retained as a fundraising tool. The committee will kick around additional fundraising ideas with the goal of staging a fireworks show each Independence Day without the nail-biting of the last three years.

Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Advertiser. Reach her by email at

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