Los Chaparros Mexican Restaurant on Beretania Street is not literally Ajanthan "A.T." Thevarajah’s "house," but the ebullient 24-year-old shift leader can be forgiven for insisting that it is.
Thevarajah has worked at the popular Moiliili restaurant for eight years — a third of his earthly existence — and has come to regard owners Mario Barron and Lisa Hokkyo as second parents, his kitchen crew as brothers-in-spatulas and his customers as honored guests.
"Lisa and Mario take care of me like I was their kid, and in return I want to work hard and do whatever I can to help this restaurant grow," Thevarajah says. "I was blessed with this job, and I love being here."
Working hard has never been an issue for Thevarajah, whose family moved from Sri Lanka to Hawaii when he was 11.
Thevarajah’s father supported the family by working in various kitchens around town. As an adolescent, Thevarajah would assist his father by chopping vegetables and doing other prep work.
"My father is a very hardworking man," Thevarajah says. "He gets up early in the morning and works. That’s all he knows."
As he got older, Thevarajah adopted a similar ethos.
"My parents are pretty cheap," Thevarajah says, laughing. "They wouldn’t get me a phone, so my only option was to pay for it myself. They would buy me shoes if I needed them, but if I wanted a pair of Nike Air Force, I had to work for it myself. It was the same with senior prom, field trips, clothes, my first Xbox."
Thus, at age 16, Thevarajah got a job as a dishwasher for Los Chaparros.
"It was hard at first because I’m a big dude, and it wasn’t easy moving around in that little space," he says. "Growing up, I didn’t know how hard working could be, but being around Lisa and Mario rubbed off on me. It also helped to realize how hard my dad worked."
Thevarajah worked part time at the restaurant while also playing football for the McKinley Tigers and participating in the school’s Academy of Finance program.
After high school, Thevarajah attended college at the behest of his two employers. When he decided that he didn’t want to continue, they gave him a full-time position to ensure that he’d stay productive and self-sufficient.
"They taught me a lot about how to manage my money and about wants versus needs," he says.
Thevarajah has worked virtually every position at the restaurant — host, server, cook, manager — and has done so with a unique sense of pride and joy.
"In Sri Lankan culture a house is a place that cleanses your spirit," he says. "When people come to this restaurant, I want to make sure they leave happier than when they arrived. That’s what I aim for."
Check out @IncidentalLives on Twitter. Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.