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The Weekly Eater: A bake sale for troubled times at Restaurant XO

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Kenneth Lee arranges an order of frozen dishes at Restaurant XO in Kaimuki.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Kenneth Lee arranges an order of frozen dishes at Restaurant XO in Kaimuki.

With coronavirus fears keeping people at home, many looking for ways to entertain themselves are revisiting a past way of life.

In my neighborhood I see (and hear) more children playing in their yards, some having old-fashioned water balloon fights. I see more families going on walks together when the air starts cooling just before sundown, and more people are reporting playing board games, cooking, having time to read and exercising at home, rather than a gym.

Over at Restaurant XO, one of the many ways chef-owner Kenneth Lee is trying to serve the Kaimuki neighborhood is by hosting an old-fashioned bake sale.

Typically a way for schools and community groups to pull home bakers together for a cause, it was one small way to help put pastry chefs back to work, he thought. He makes only a token $1 for each item sold.

“It gave us a chance to make a little money in the downtime, which I think was so nice,” said Heather Lukela, owner of HB Baking. He didn’t have to do that.”

She was working as an assistant pastry cook at the Kahala Hotel & Resort before it temporarily closed.

“Fortunately, I had my business established before this went down. Imagine trying to get a business license now,” Lukela said.

“Normally I wouldn’t push my business because of my full-time job, but now I’m doing more Instagram and Facebook posts, anything to get the word out.”

At XO, she’s been offering a Snuggy Bear ice cream pie of English toffee and coffee almond fudge ice cream on a chocolate cookie crust, as well as shelf-stable choco-nut crisps, bibingka brownies and gluten-free banana crumb mochi muffins. She also introduced a $12 vegan lemon pound cake that has been a hit.

“I figured it’s Kaimuki, so there would probably be some people who want vegan stuff.”

JEN MIYAHIRA was a baker at Moku Kitchen which, like many other restaurants, has closed for the duration of the crisis. She’s now using her time to make macarons for sale at XO.

Before Lee called, she said, “I was getting lazy. I didn’t want to do anything, but it gave me a purpose for my day.”

She’s now prepping macarons as needed, coming up with new flavors for each batch. Some recent offerings have been chocolate, vanilla, green tea and lavender, at five for $6.

The bake sale is just one way Lee is trying to keep his doors open.

“When this first started, people were going around saying, ‘support local businesses,’ but that only goes so far when they’re paying $15 to $30 per meal. After a while they get wallet fatigue.”

So in addition to offering his regular menu to go, he started to offer more streamlined frozen- food offerings to help families with many mouths to feed. Without the extra sides and flourishes of a sit-down meal, he’s able to sell dishes such as lasagna, kalbi-braised beef shanks, BBQ spice-rubbed braised pork belly, and his famous adobo fried chicken for about $9 to $10 per pound.

HE IS also selling extra stock of beer, wine, his signature XO sauce ($50 per quart), vacuum-sealed banh mi-style pickles, even protective masks and individual rolls of toilet paper.

“That’s how desperate we are,” he said. “No idea is dumb right now; every idea is worth trying.”

He adds: “People are coming in for takeout and frozen food, and when they see the other stuff they walk out with a handful of things.”

He will soon start offering KC waffle dogs for lunch, and is thinking about offering a fresh-baked cookie with every purchase. He’s also been amenable to special requests, such as one woman’s craving for fried pickles — not on his menu, but she couldn’t find any place that offered them.

“I thought about it for one minute and said, ‘Yeah, I can have it ready in 10 minutes.’

“We’re losing money like everybody else, but what can you do? It’s now just a game of who can adapt to this situation.I look on the bright side, like I’m glad this didn’t happen in December, but during a naturally slower season. There are so many ways this could be a lot worse, like we could have twice as many cases or no stimulus package.”

Robyn Ferguson came all the way from Waimanalo to drop off her Gummi Smacks, gummi bears seasoned with her wet lemon peel and li hing mui.

She had launched her business online last fall and was planning on trying farmer’s markets. “I never had a chance to start.”

ALISON YOKOUCHI, a pastry chef at the Halekulani, has been making cookies and granola to sell at XO, and just last week held a one-week sale of her cookies and banana pudding at Ethel’s Grill, after getting a call from owners Robert and Minaka Urquidi. “They asked me if I wanted to sell anything, but I think it’s just because Robert wanted to eat the banana pudding.”

She doesn’t know how long she can continue. “It’s getting harder to find ingredients and I don’t want to go to the store if I don’t really need to. I’m thinking about continuing, but it seems like something changes every hour.”

RESTAURANT XO

3434 Waialae Ave., 732-3838

Open 5 to 8 p.m. daily; lunch hours starting soon


Nadine Kam’s restaurant reviews are conducted anonymously and paid for by the Star-Advertiser. Reach her at nkam@staradvertiser.com.


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