It’s not just work, it’s family for Tanioka’s veteran
Esther Ringor of Tanioka’s Seafoods and Catering is the first winner of the ‘Ilima Unsung Hero award, acknowledging the contributions of a restaurant employee who has served for years outside the spotlight.
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She’s every boss’s dream employee, and every employee’s favorite co-worker. No job is too big or too small for Esther Ringor, the first winner of the ‘Ilima Unsung Hero award, a new category acknowledging the contributions of a restaurant employee who has served for years outside the spotlight.
Ringor has worked at Tanioka’s Seafoods and Catering for 40 years, but says it hasn’t felt like a job to her, it’s more like pulling together as a family.
“It’s still fun for me,” said Ringor, an energetic age 74, whose laughter constantly bubbles over. “Every morning I think, ‘I gotta get up and go to work.’ I’m happy to come here.”
Tanioka’s was founded by Ringor’s brother Mel Tanioka and his wife, Lynn, in 1978, and everyone in the family helped out however they could.
Ringor had a full-time job outside Tanioka’s for the first 30 years, but worked at the store every weekend, so Mel and Lynn could have one day off each week. Sunday was the one day the couple could spend time with children Jasmine and Justin, who today run the company.
Now Ringor is one of several assistant general managers at the award-winning seafood and catering enterprise in Waipahu. The company has 130 employees and “she works harder than everybody,” said Jasmine Tanioka. “It’s not just a job for her.”
For nearly four decades, she said, Ringor worked not just Sundays but every major holiday, often the first to arrive and the last to leave.
“On any given day you can find Auntie helping employees, serving customers, mixing poke, assisting any department that needs help, and cleaning.”
She makes care packages of food for the dishwashers every day to acknowledge their hard work, Tanioka added. “She treats them with respect so they know they’ve valued. Not everybody has that in them — to see the value of everyone.”
She has trained the store’s employees with disabilities and always volunteers for the company’s golf tournaments that raise funds for cancer patients and other charities.
“Auntie Esther is everybody’s auntie at Tanioka’s,” Tanioka said. “Best of all, she is full of smiles and hugs for everyone.”
For her part, Ringor says, repeatedly, “Don’t make me famous. … They’ve had plenty workers who are unsung heroes. You can’t do it all yourself. Everyone loves working here and they don’t mind pitching in.”
Though she has two kids of her own, she takes care of everyone from dishwashers to sushi rollers as if they were her own brood. She said she wants them to see her not as the boss, just “Auntie Esther,” someone they feel comfortable sharing their problems with.
From the very beginning of the company, Ringor was one of a handful of relatives who lent their hands as well as cooking expertise.
Their home recipes became Tanioka’s famous dishes like Grandma Tanioka’s ahi patties, Grandma Sakuma’s maki sushi, Aunty Betty’s inari sushi — as well as the limu poke and crispy fried chicken.
Ringor’s favorite task is mixing poke. Tanioka boasts more than 30 kinds, including clam, tako (octopus) and tofu, selling 500 to 1,000 pounds on weekdays, and much more on weekends. Ringor and three others take turns mixing the poke daily from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
“I’m getting my exercise,” she said, as she lifted and tossed of ingredients.
They all have the poke recipes memorized after making them for so long, but there’s a trick. “You gotta put your love into it.”
Her resilience defies her age and the years of hard work —“I’m just lucky, I’ve been very healthy,” she added, comparing herself to a tough mixed-breed pup, versus a less-resilient breed with a pedigree. “I’m just a poi dog! When you’re a poi dog, you’re strong, right?!”
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