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Every Sunday, my family used to go to Columbia Inn in Kaimuki. There was something both comforting and familiar about these small local diners: KC Drive Inn, Victoria Inn, Flamingo Chuckwagon and many more.
These were the places local families ate. Where we would gather for special occasions, birthdays, an out of town relative visiting.
Many of these places have closed their doors. They often close suddenly. We’re lucky if we get a few days’ notice, and then everyone will rush down to get their last fix. Libby Manapua Shop was one recent example. When they suddenly announced this past April that this staple of the community would be shortly closing its doors after 57 years of business, the line snaked around the block.
Many of the okazuya of my youth have also closed. I fondly remember Ethel’s, where we would get noodles and hash. Thank god for the Fukuya in Moiliili, a wonderful okazuya that remains open.
There seems to be a growing number of “You know you’re from … if …” groups on Facebook, when community members gather to lament the loss of the mom and pop shops from their youth. It’s a wonderful use of social media, as the groups allow for group members to post their historic photos and share stories about these places as they existed in our youth.
It’s important to support the small mom and pop shops that remain with us. Tasaka Guri Guri and Komoda’s on Maui. Hamura’s Saimin on Kauai. I’m still convinced that Suisan has the best poke, the second best being Richard’s on Lanai. Speaking of Lanai, many will disagree, but I think Blue Ginger has the best hamburger steak in the state, although the Cookhouse on Molokai gives it a good run for its money.
There’s just so much great good being made in local communities by people who have devoted their lives to keeping small businesses alive.
Thanksgiving is almost here: this means it’s time for a midnight trip to Lee’s Bakery in Chinatown. For those not in the know, Lee’s is famous for its custard pie. (Their pumpkin pies are also great.) They are known for being so busy the day before Thanksgiving that they literally stay open 24 hours the day before, constantly cranking out pies to an endless line of local devotees.
The line is constant these 24 hours. In my experience, the wait has never been less than an hour (and can sometimes be a few hours). It is always worth it, and it’s a wonderful tradition for local people who are more than happy to wait for the hot, delicious pies.
It’s these gems of our local culture that make Hawaii unique.
I go out of my way to shop at these places. Whether as omiyage going to another island or to the mainland or going to a business meeting. We should be deliberately directing our resources to support these small businesses, because they are more than businesses, they are pillars of our local culture.
And it’s great to see where many of these local places are starting to enjoy broader success. If you want to enjoy Hawaii, then you absolutely should have a slush float from Rainbow Drive-Inn and malasadas from Leonard’s bakery. You should enjoy the things about Hawaii that you cannot find anywhere else.
Maybe I’m just getting old, but I feel a certain nostalgia when I drive past places where some of these great eateries used to be. The medical building in Kapahulu will also be where “KC Drive Inn used to be.” The location of the shops on Ward is still “where Gem’s was.” I still call Don Quijote “Holiday Mart.”
I refuse to change, if for no other reason than it sparks wonderful conversations about what once was. If we are to keep the best parts of our local culture thriving, we need to make the effort to remember our past with aloha and enthusiasm. Many of these places may be gone, they certainly don’t need to be forgotten.
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