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Rookies Start Their First Restaurants

A passion for food and people draws newcomers Kristin Jackson, Bud Antonelis and Carri Loui into a challenging business

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Everybody loves “Papu”

Dressed in an aloha shirt and a smile, Antonelis walks around the dining room, chatting with customers as if they’re sitting in his living room. Sometimes, he tells stories about the 10 summers he spent on the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea studying northern fur seals, or his work on San Miguel Island off the California coast near Santa Barbara, where he lived with his family several months a year for 12 years as he studied the marine mammals called pinnipeds. Customers usually walk away having learned something unexpected, and that’s part of The Grove’s success.

Kaimuki Grill owner Carri Loui catches up on paperwork for the
restaurant before the lunchtime crowd comes in.
Photo: David Croxford

“We call it the ‘Papu Factor,’ ” says his son, Troy, using the Greek word for grandpa. “He makes sure they’re happy and they feel at home.”

“I get the best job,” Antonelis chimes in with his big smile.

The way the owners of The Grove have made it work is by finding specific roles for everyone: The wives designed the restaurant’s interior and outfitted the wait staff; Troy is responsible for the front of the house, a role he has played for 15 years in other restaurants; DeAngelo runs the kitchen; and Antonelis makes the customers want to come back.

“This really ties in to who we are and what we want to be as a community restaurant,” Troy says. “It shows we’re a family-run restaurant. He lends a personal touch to customers who come in and dine here.”

Antonelis is also the resident handyman. In fact, there’s a Papu to-do list in the back, with items like hanging pictures in the bathroom and changing light bulbs.

“The handyman thing is huge,” DeAngelo says, laughing, “especially when you’ve got ongoing maintenance. But it’s really his smile, his levity. He’s everybody’s friend. Everyone loves Papu.”

The best part

Meeting customers has been the best part of running a restaurant for Carri Loui.

In 2009, she and her husband, Bryan, opened Kaimuki Grill in a 1,600-square-foot space formerly occupied by Momotaro Sushi. She was wholesaling craft goods; he owned a floral shop. The only experience Carri had in restaurants was working as a waitress for Wong’s Okazu-ya for a year.

Her husband loves to cook at home and thought it would be fun to open a restaurant, but quickly found out that being a home cook and a professional chef are completely different. He ran the restaurant for six months before deciding it wasn’t for him, leaving Loui to handle it on her own.

“I was apprehensive because, at the time, the economy was so bad and because of our age,” says Loui, 53. “My girlfriend, who’s worked in the restaurant business for many years, told me it’s the hardest work you could ever imagine and worse. And it is. It’s a lot of work … but the customers really make it worthwhile.”

It’s not uncommon for Loui to spend 16 hours at work, visiting wholesalers and helping with catering jobs. Even when the restaurant is closed on Mondays, she’s there, doing paperwork and running errands. “And I still feel like I can’t catch up,” she says.

Starting a restaurant because you like to cook at home is a fatal mistake many newcomers make, says George Mavrothalassitis, chef and proprietor of the award-winning Chef Mavro.

“People think if you’re a good cook at home, then it’s the same thing at a restaurant,” he says. “That’s a big mistake.”

Mavrothalassitis wasn’t formally trained before he opened his first establishment, Restaurant La Presqu’ile, in Cassis, France. He was a mechanical engineer and manufactured helicopter parts. When he was 28, he had earned enough money to pursue his real passion.

“I told my father (also an engineer), ‘You know, I think I’d like to be a chef,’ ” Mavro says. “I almost got killed. You never want to anger a Greek father.”

Nonetheless, he bought the restaurant, hired the best chefs and made himself an apprentice in the kitchen for six years. During the winter, when restaurants in the area shut down, he went to learn from master chefs in various three-star Michelin restaurants.

“You realize very fast this is a professional job,” he says. “And you’re always suffering. You suffer when it’s not busy. You suffer when it’s busy but you have no staff. You suffer when the economy is bad. It’s always something. But aside from that, I love every single minute.”

 

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