The latest Hawaii franchise of the way-more-than 700-unit Gyu-Kaku restaurant officially opened Wednesday at Windward Mall after a soft opening the week before.
In the former Farrell’s Hawaii and McDonald’s space, the 4,100-square-foot yakiniku restaurant has 32 gas roaster tables, at which 132 diners can sit and commune as they cook their own aromatic beef, chicken, scallops, shrimp and more. There is no bar at which to sit, but cocktail service is available. The average check per person is $25.
On the Windward side there were no shabu-shabu, yakiniku or teppanyaki restaurants, so "we are the only show in town," said Rick Nakashima, partner in GK Hawaii Restaurants Inc. The franchisee has expanded the successful concept belonging to the Japanese-based parent of Reins International (USA) Co. Ltd.
The Kapiolani Boulevard location was the first Gyu-Kaku in the United States. Hawaii’s second Gyu-Kaku is on Lewers Street, but there are growing numbers on the mainland and more than 700 in Japan, Nakashima said. Neither Nakashima nor partners Ted Davenport or Lyle Matsuoka are involved with the other two Hawaii stores, but they "would like to" open additional Hawaii Gyu-Kaku restaurants, he said.
Nakashima and Davenport also are Ruby Tuesday franchisees, and Davenport also owns some Subway Restaurant locations.
The Windward Mall Gyu-Kaku hired 65 full- and part-time employees, mostly Windward residents, Matsuoka said. As with many new restaurant and retail operations, there will be some staff attrition. "I figure we’re going to end up at about the 50 (employee) range," Matsuoka said.
Gyu-Kaku is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, "and we’re thinking we can go later," Nakashima said, noting the vibrant late-night scene with the young crowd in the Honolulu stores.
L&L’s new model store
The newest company-owned restaurant in the L&L chain is the airport location at 550 Paiea St., space No. 132, near Starbucks and Jamba Juice. The previously franchised store had closed in January, and co-founder Eddie Flores renovated and reopened the space not only to serve customers food, but also to establish a model for Hawaii stores, hiring 25 employees in the process. It is modeled after stores outside Hawaii, known as L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.
"I’m trying to make it into what L&L is supposed to be, through training, uniforms — a model for the rest to follow — not wacky," he said. Currently every Hawaii L&L "looks a little different," with different menu boards and employees not similarly attired.
Flores wants to standardize the appearance of the stores, staff uniforms, the food and the customer experience. The new store will be the training ground for new franchisees on the path toward opening their own stores.
L&L is becoming increasingly common in Hawaii and beyond, with nearly 200 locations in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, American Samoa, Japan and New Zealand.
He has so far received no resistance from franchisees on re-branding the stores in Hawaii, where L&L was born, to the mainland appearance, he said. In the early days of L&L’s mainland expansion, Hawaii expats would seek out L&L for their fix of food from home, as well as some Chinese dishes and Spam musubi, which for years the Hawaii locations did not serve. With so many L&L Hawaiian Barbecue locations on the mainland now, Flores said visitors from the mainland seek out "Hawaiian Barbecue" when they’re here. "‘Drive-Inn’ doesn’t mean anything to them."
"Eventually every L&L Drive-Inn will be a Hawaiian Barbecue," he said. "We are slowly switching" as new stores open or as existing stores renovate or change their signage.
Flores, known for making bold, eyebrow-raising statements on occasion, predicted the term "‘Hawaiian barbecue’ will more or less replace ‘plate lunch,’ I think," Flores said.
Doubt if you will, but mark his words, and remember that this is the man whose planned mainland expansion of the plate lunch was initially mocked.
Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Advertiser. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.