Kana Girl’s Hawaiian BBQ on a busy Friday night
Once Upon a Time… Kana & Keoni owned a Hawai’ian barbecue restaurant.
For more than a year, Kana Girl’s Hawai’ian BBQ held UrbanSpoon’s #1 spot for “Best BBQ restaurant” in the Treasure Valley (home to one-third of Idaho’s population)…. And we had a kick-ass time of it, building a unique atmosphere with our combined knowledge of Hawai’ian culture and Keoni’s cooking—the authentic family recipes he learned from his Tutu Pa (grandfather) when he was a small kid. The word our guests most often used to describe Keoni’s food (a little ironic in view of our own alcoholic/addict backgrounds) was: ADDICTIVE. We were closed Sundays & Mondays, which meant we’d have an onslaught of regular customers every Tuesday, jonesing for a “fix” because they’d had to go two days without his food. No joke.
A photo featured in “Boise Weekly” with a rave review of our restaurant… Keoni & me displaying a couple “Plate Lunches”…
When we first opened the restaurant, we hadn’t realized what an abundant number of Hawai’ians and Pacific Islanders lived in this area, but word quickly spread among the “Local” community (“Local” being a word Hawai’ians use to refer to other Islanders, regardless of their current location) and we quickly had a flood of folks looking to test us to see if Keoni’s food were the “real thing.” He passed the authenticity test, hands down—his “plate lunch” (a to-go container with sticky rice, mac salad, and favorite Island entrees) is precisely what the Local folks remember from back home. Word-of-Mouth served us well; most months we didn’t spend a dime on advertising—but business was booming.
The two of us ran the place by ourselves–the original “Mom & Pop” approach—so we had the pleasure of getting to know our many Regulars, and after a while we couldn’t go anywhere in town without being pounced on and identified as “the Hawai’ian BBQ people.” No doubt it’s the closest we’ll ever come to experiencing “celebrity” status. (Keoni follows the Hawai’ian custom of addressing everyone as “Bruddah” or “Sistah”–a personable habit that came in handy in the occasional encounter when we were unable to put names to the faces of people who obviously recognized US…)
Wally & Esther—a friendship that began with “Howzit”… Enjoying Lau Lau, an ULTRA-traditional Hawai’ian dish
It led to some interesting social dynamics at times… During our first week of business a gentleman came in the front door and I greeted him with “Howzit“–the Island version of “Hey, how’s it going?” He literally stopped dead in his tracks and repeated the word with a question mark. He looked “Local” to me, but I expanded with an explanation: “Howzit–How’s it going?” He looked askance at my haole (white!) self and retorted, “I know Howzit. How do you know Howzit?” I explained that I went to school on the Big Island, and that I’m married to a Hawai’ian (the cook)—and once he tasted (or should I say tested) his first Plate Lunch order, he was hooked. In fact, he and his wife became some of our closest friends in the years that followed.
Keoni “playing ukelele” on a taro root
And then there were my Friday-morning rounds to the Asian markets in town… We made our fries from the taro root (the Hawai’ian staple from which they make poi)–but taro is understandably difficult to come by in Idaho. All the Asian markets got their produce shipments on Friday mornings, which meant that every Friday the markets would be swamped with lovely ladies who came up to my shoulder… And every Friday I made the rounds of all those markets, buying up their taro root. I’m not sure what the Chinese words would be for “tattooed white lady who buys the taro,” but chances are that I’d recognize the phrase if I ever heard it again… The taro fries were a hit—and we noticed that although people occasionally asked if we had poi, very few people actually asked for it. Let’s just say that poi is an acquired taste.
Keoni on a “charm walk,” sharing a shaka with a connoisseur of the keiki (kids’) menu
Whenever Keoni had a few minutes of down-time in the kitchen, he’d wend his way through the dining room (I called it his “Charm Walk”) speaking Hawai’ian Pidgin with the Local folks and “talking story” with other diners. (Pidgin is a recognized language in the Islands, so Keoni was considered a Bilingual Officer when he worked in the prisons there…) He also sang in the kitchen all day long–he’s got a gorgeous tenor voice and knows all the classic Hawai’ian songs by heart… His Tutu Pa was a musician, and taught Keoni to sing as well as to cook–and also to blend the things he’s passionate about.
Piko (one of our regulars) kicking back for some kanikapila after a meal
Our restaurant was the kind of place where diners (who didn’t know each other) would chat among tables, where people would bring ukeleles and indulge in an impromptu kanikapila (“jam session”) when they finished eating, where a couple might get up and dance in the middle of the floor to one of Keoni’s solos, where regular customers would drop in to say Aloha and give us a hug even when they weren’t there to eat, where people brought in all kinds of Hawai’ian mementos until our decor was a wonderfully collaborative clutter, where we could get to know people’s regular requests and personalize their orders (that’s also how we ended up with Vegetarian and Gluten-Free menus), where people could slow down from the hectic pace of their lives and enjoy a mini-vacation in our “ISLAND TIME zone” (as the sign above the door proclaimed)… We liked to think of it as an embassy of sorts—a few hundred square feet of Hawai’ian soil in the middle of Idaho.
We loved being able to work together—we were happy to go to work together every morning, and we were happy to go home together every evening. We were only half joking when we’d say that Keoni was afraid of the cash register and I was afraid of the smoker—but together we made a Most Excellent Team. And Keoni liked to boast that he got “paid in kisses and tattoos.” Whenever a diner told me I should give the cook a raise, I’d lay a big ol’ smooch on him!
evidently this chick doesn’t look like a business owner…
We regularly ran up against sexist stereotypes when dealing with salespeople and the like; very few people made their first approach with the idea that I might be the “businessperson” of the operation. One salesman came in while Keoni was out picking up supplies, and insisted on sitting and waiting until my husband returned, rather than talking to me. When Keoni came back half an hour later, you can imagine the guy’s chagrin when Keoni told him, “You’ll have to talk to Kana Girl about that. She’s the owner—I just cook.” Needless to say, this guy had already lost any chance of making a sale. Other people would ask me if they could talk to the owner (never mind my apron with “Kana” across the front, and the “Kana Girl’s” name across the front door)—and one fellow went so far as to ask me if I knew who the owner was. (Surely it couldn’t be the tattooed chick in the miniskirt!)
Keoni at the restaurant with the youngest 4 of our 7 kids: Christian, Kapena, Elena Grace, & Kawika
We were also both very happy about NOT having to work for anybody else. It was one of our favorite jokes, whenever anyone asked if we could make a substitution or fulfill a special request—Keoni would answer, “Well, I’ll have to check with Corporate…” Then he’d turn to me with the question: “So what do you think, Babe?” (We also joked that if I were “Corporate,” that made Keoni my “Corporate Man-date”…) We loved being able to do things the way WE thought they should be done, and we loved being able to involve our keikis (kids) in the family business.
Looking back now… Opening that restaurant when we did looks in retrospect like a totally harebrained idea. We were deep in a recession and eateries were closing left and right. Neither of us had ever owned a business, we’d only known each other for half a year, and only been Sober for that same half-year. Launching a restaurant just then was a crazy-ass thing to do. And we had a lot to learn! But all in all, it went beautifully. In fact, in some ways it was an advantage to be new to the restaurant business, because we weren’t hidebound by “The Way Things Are Done.” (Take the zero-dollar advertising budget, for example…) Although I also have to say that there were plenty of other things, learned along the way, that we would definitely handle differently if we ever had a “do-over.”
Keoni with another Keoni, who gave us his old license plate to hang on the wall
In the end, we threw our beautiful restaurant away. We didn’t lose it; we threw it away. After a year and a half of booming business, we drank again. In a mere matter of weeks, we threw away absolutely everything that was important to our Sober Selves. Custody of our kids, our restaurant, our house, our car, and almost our marriage. (People regularly ask us if we ever fight—a question usually accompanied by the observation that we clearly have a lot of fun together. The honest answer is that we don’t argue… when we’re Sober. When we drank, we didn’t even like each other.)
Keoni cooking on his smoker—in sunshine, rain, sleet, or snow… And always in shorts! Crazy Hawai’ian.
That was a little more than two years ago. If we could take back the hurt we caused to the people who love us—particularly our kids and our parents—we’d do it in a heartbeat. But at the same time… There are a lot of things about our journey of the last couple years that we wouldn’t want to trade. (In fact, that’s probably a whole post in its own right.) Bottom line, though: despite the financial struggles and various challenges of the last 27 months, we’re in a better place now than we’ve ever been—spiritually, emotionally, in terms of our Sobriety and our family relationships… in every way, actually, except financially.
And then… An unexpected blessing fell into our laps. Keoni had a retirement account from his career in Corrections; we’d been trying to avoid tapping into that resource, but we’d been falling behind on our rent, and he had a couple surgeries to get through (last week’s spine surgery, and another knee replacement coming up) before he could get back to working… So we finally decided we’d better go ahead and cash out his retirement. We thought it would be just enough to catch up on our rent and pay ahead a few months while we figured out “what next”… But when the check arrived, it turned out to be quite a lot more than we’d expected. In fact…
a wakeboard made for us (and autographed) by one of our regular customers
It turned out to be enough to re-open our restaurant. Seriously, how often in life do we actually get a “do-over”? Well, we just got handed one. To quote one of our favorite A.A. guys: “How cool is THAT?!”
Things have been falling into place the way only God’s plans do. (One of the things we’ve learned in Sobriety is that when we’re working too hard to try and make something happen, it’s time to take a step back and evaluate whether “our plan” is really the best thing to be doing. Not surprisingly, God’s ideas are better than ours.)
We found the perfect location almost immediately. It’s ideally situated from a business perspective, and it’s right next door to Elena Grace’s school and within walking distance of Christian’s junior high. There’s even a private space upstairs that we can use as a “family room” when the younger kids are there with us.
This time around we also have the advantage of some eager extra hands within the family. Our teenage son Kapena has already been working full-time between two jobs, and he can’t wait to quit those jobs to work with us. Even Christian is gung-ho about being part of the venture. And we have the chance this time to put into practice all the things we learned the “hard way” the last time around. I can’t even begin to describe how excited we are.
We’re set to open April 13 (our lucky number 13!), giving the landlord time to do some remodeling and updating of the building, and giving us time to “remodel” the cook (those surgeries I mentioned). The restaurant website is still under construction, but I do have the menus posted: www.KanaGirlBBQ.com. And so… The next adventure begins! Stay tuned…
our “save the date” card