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The Oroku, Okinawa Connection: Local-Style Restaurants in Hawai‘i

Four women and three men stand in interior of restaurant furnished with a counter, tables, and booths.
New Capitol Café, 1938. (Photo courtesy Margaret Umeno Uyehara.)

The Oroku, Okinawa Connection: Local-Style Restaurants in Hawai‘i project focuses on the origins, growth, maintenance, and decline of family-run local-style restaurants owned and operated by individuals from Oroku, Okinawa.

“My oldest brother [Sam Uyehara] learned from Hibiscus Café. He was a carpenter before. Those depression days, no more jobs. So nighttime he goes there, learn how to cook. Then we opened Smile Café. Then from Smile Café, you take like a guy used to own Sierra Café, [as a] young boy, can just learn how to cook. Ramona Café owner, he was working with us. Aloha Grill owner, he used to work with us. . . . Even New Capitol, Bert Uyehara, he was a waiter. And he learned how to cook. They all learned from our place, too. Then some [other] guys learned from their restaurants. They’re all friends. Oroku people, they hire Oroku people. They work hard, you know.” —Masaji Uyehara

Since the 1920s, there have been more than seventy restaurants owned and operated on O‘ahu by Orokun-chu, or individuals whose families originated in Oroku, Okinawa. The earliest documented by the Oroku Azajin Restaurant Committee is American Café founded by Ushi Takara in 1923. Ushi Takara and non-Orokun-chu Harry Seigi Uehara, owner of Kewalo Inn, have often been credited for hiring, training, and inspiring others to open their own eateries. Orokun-chu restaurateurs also mentioned as mentors by project interviewees include: Gentaro Kaneshiro of Frankie’s Café and Columbia Inn, Fred Toshio Kaneshiro of Columbia Inn, the Takaras and Teruyas of Kaimuki Inn, Saburo Teruya of Hibiscus Café, and Saburo Takara of Ramona Café.

“Like any family corporation or any family business, we all start from the bottom. My role was, we do anything and everything that’s necessary. I think, somewhere along the line my father [Tosh Kaneshiro] told me, ‘You’re going to become one of the highest-paid busboys in town.’ And I think he was right because I think he knew that everybody had to learn everything when you are a part of the ownership. I think my father was an interesting teacher. He never sat down anybody and lectured. But sometimes his comments maybe sounds like he’s kidding, but he had a strong message.” —Eugene Kaneshiro

Through the influence of these and other early restaurateurs and the efforts of young men and women who started as dishwashers, kitchen help, and wait help, the number of Okinawan-run restaurants proliferated. For three decades beginning in the 1930s, these businesses began offering set meals and services suited to the likes and needs of island families.

“[American Café served] cutlet, hash, fish, sometimes turtle steak. You ever heard of turtle steak? It looks like veal cutlet with gravy on top. . . . [Fruit] cocktail or soup, a drink, and bread, and dessert went with it. . . . The lunch used to be thirty-five cents. I think evening would be about fifty-five [cents], but they would add steak or something, pork chop.” —Margaret Uyehara

While all but a few among the seventy or so restaurants owned by Orokun-chu are no longer in operation, many are still familiar to old-time restaurant-goers. Aloha Grill, Bluebird Café, Columbia Inn, George’s Inn, Kaimuki Inn, Lucky Grill, New Capitol Café, Sierra Café, Smile Café, and Times Grill are places still remembered. The entrées, menus, and services associated with these establishments are longstanding standards for local restaurants and part of island history.

“She [i.e., mother] worked as a waitress [at Kaimuki Inn]. She worked with her sisters, Yukiko, Kikue, and Kimiko. On special occasions she used to wear kimono to work. . . . On busy days, she used to work morning, lunch, and dinner shift. If she had any extra time, she used to work at other restaurant or soda fountain. As soon as my father came back from Japan, he started to work at Kaimuki Inn as a fry cook. He had a working shift from lunch hour till closing hour, late in the night. Day off? I wonder if we had.” —Richard Takara

The interviews featured in this volume help preserve and share the history of these establishments.

“What are my thoughts [about the restaurant and bar business]? I have good thoughts. Working in a restaurant was—we were only little so we did things like washing glasses, drying the utensils. Later on I waited on tables, but I didn’t find it hard work. I didn’t think I was deprived or overworked or anything. Maybe, too, it’s because I see my parents working hard. Today, they say you have to spend time with the children. You can’t deprive them of this and that. But we didn’t feel deprived. Everybody was in the same boat anyhow. All of the parents were all working hard.” —Ruby Uehara

 

Link to audioWallace Teruya, Times Grill owner, remembers Kewalo Inn, where he worked as a waiter in the early 1930s (.mp3 sound file, 848K).

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