Hundreds line up every day for Rainbow Drive-In’s trademark chili, or a plate lunch covered in brown gravy, but few know that it is a lone employee who comes in every morning while it’s still dark to get the lifeblood of the Kapahulu restaurant flowing.
Alan Nishimura starts mixing huge batches of the restaurant’s mainstays at 3:30 a.m. five days a week, when most of the world is asleep. He has hardly missed a shift in the last 10 years, or for that matter, the entire 23 years he’s worked for the landmark family business.
That’s why Hiroshi Fukui, Rainbow’s dining facilities manager, nominated Nishimura for the Star-Advertiser’s ‘Ilima Unsung Hero annual award, which honors the valuable behind-the-scenes contributions of a restaurant staffer.
He’s been “super loyal to the company, dependable, and he’s very humble,” Fukui said.
In the five years he’s been with the company, Fukui said, he doesn’t recall Nishimura ever calling in sick. If he’s not feeling well, he works wearing a mask, or he might switch his days off with another worker so his shift is covered, he added.
Jim Gusukuma, the company’s recently retired senior vice president, agreed.
“Alan is truly an unsung hero at Rainbow Drive-In. He never sought the spotlight and always supported the owners, officers and managers. He has been the key to maintaining the consistency of Rainbow’s food by preparing and training others to prepare over 1,000 plate lunches per day.”
Gusukuma has known the steady worker since Nishimura’s first day. “Alan is more than a good worker. He is an integral part of the operation and demonstrates his loyalty daily.”
Nishimura, 54, started as a meat slicer in 1996, after working as a prep cook at other small restaurants. He became the chief chili and gravy maker about a decade ago, turning out 10 gallons of chili and 36 gallons of gravy per day, the backbone of the menu. The savory sauce is poured over loco moco, chicken cutlets and just about everything, becoming such a local favorite at the 58-year-old restaurant that it sells a variety of T-shirts with the saying, “Gravy All Over.”
The recipes have been streamlined to make them very simple to follow, so there are no tricks Nishimura can share. He’s made these Rainbow bestsellers for so many years, “it’s not too hard for me,” he said. In fact, he probably could do it in his sleep, although he gets only five hours of shut-eye nightly and admits to chronic sleepiness.
He’s the only one in the kitchen in the peaceful pre-dawn hours, but he prefers working when he can move around quickly without bumping into others. After two hours, his co-workers start streaming in and the pace gets a lot more hectic. That’s when Nishimura goes “on the line” as kitchen manager, coordinating customer orders with line cooks — and frying a few eggs occasionally — until his shift ends at 1:30 p.m.
“It can be stressful, but it’s fun,” he said.
A shy person of few words, Nishimura shrugs off his steadfastness to being “just the way I work,” and says the owners treat the staff well. “I know that they appreciate me.”
That makes up for any downside to the job, and Nishimura can see himself working there indefinitely. Every day, as it’s been for the past 23 years, “My goal is to do the best that I can.”
New CEO Christopher Iwamura, the 33-year-old grandson of founders Seiji and Ayako Ifuku, said he practically grew up with Nishimura.
“He’s been part of the family, and it’s been great to see that he loves it here. For a family business, it’s really important to take care of your employees like they are just part of the family.”
On some days, Nishimura is the first one in and the last one out. If things need to be done when his shift ends, he’ll stay until everything’s ready for the next day, which Iwamura said the family appreciates.
“I think Alan’s just found a home here. I’m pretty sure he loves what he does, I know he loves the people.… They always talk story and joke with each other; every day it seems like they’re having a lot of fun.”
Nominations from our readers:
>> Wayne Kato, server, Cafe Kaila, Market City Shopping Center: “My husband and I have been going to Cafe Kaila for five years and never cease to be amazed at how much Wayne cares about those he serves, always with a huge smile and affable demeanor. It’s not just a job for him; it’s an opportunity to make people feel special. Wayne is just one of many great servers at Cafe Kaila but he stands out because of he treats customers like ohana.” — Carmen Williams
>> Mark Akiyoshi, waiter, Assaggio Hawaii Kai: “Mark is always a joy, and a friendly soul. Everyone that works there is great, but Mark is an absolute standout. Once my mom and I accidentally locked our keys in the car. Mark called a buddy who was a mobile locksmith, who unlocked our car. Mark totally saved the day, and he has been a friend ever since.” — Carmen Geshell