Operating a Lunch Wagon in Honolulu Not As Easy As It Looks

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Survival of the tastiest

Harris Sukita has been running his lunch wagon, Simply Ono, for 16 years, earning a loyal following for an eclectic menu that has ranged from old standards like hamburger steak with onions, to seared ahi with sesame wasabi shoyu sauce, which regularly sells out.

He and his partner, Cora Stevens, started the business with about $5,000, a back pocket full of recipes and experience working in the kitchen at the Kahala Hilton. They started with one lunch wagon on Kapiolani Boulevard and grew to three, at UH-Manoa, on Punchbowl Street and in the old 99 Ranch Market building in Mapunapuna, where they rent kitchen space. They also employ about seven workers and are looking to hire.

Over the years, Sukita has managed a dining room and catered events, all while running at least one lunch wagon and devising new menu items to keep drawing his customers back. Now he’s building his own commercial kitchen in a warehouse in Kalihi to have more control over his business.

Simply Ono has tried to stay ahead of the competition by offering lunch-wagon staples – beef curry, kalua pig, shoyu pork – with more gourmet and healthier options such as big salads, fresh fish, brown rice, soups, sandwiches and homemade desserts. The wagon has even served rack of lamb and beef Wellington.

“We do crazy things to make us a little bit better than the next guy,” Sukita says.

It’s paid off.

Not only have they been able to grow their business, Sukita and Stevens own two homes, five trucks and the warehouse where their new kitchen will be.

“What we’ve done is constantly change our menu where we keep variety as our focus point,” Sukita says. “It breaks down into three basic principles: good food, good service, good price. If you’ve got those three, people will keep coming.”

That’s the goal of Xtreme Tacos, the newest food truck to hit the Honolulu scene. It started service in December.
After investing more than $60,000 in a custom-made truck, marketing and branding for the business, co-owners and couple Youssef Dakroub and Wendy Awai knew the challenges they faced. But they were prepared.

“We did our research,” says Awai, who, with her husband, owned a chain of Japanese restaurants in the Middle East.

They toured street taco vendors in Los Angeles and Mexico and came back to Hawaii with their own spin, focusing on their hot sauces to set them apart from other taco trucks.

Like the competition, they use Twitter, Facebook, Yelp and YouTube to promote their business. They also partnered with events, such as the Xterra Trail Running World Championship at Kualoa Ranch in December, to bring their tacos and burritos to potential customers.

“They say it’s an 18-hour (a day) business, and it is,” says Awai, a mother of two. “You’re up at the crack of dawn, preparing for your lunch crowd, then prepping for the evening crowd.”

The couple isn’t afraid of hard work – or finding ways to better manage it. They have hired a management team and seven employees to work the wagon while they focus on expanding the overall business, its structure and its future in Hawaii.

“It all boils down to organization,” Awai says. “Many people we’ve met who own and run lunch wagons do it themselves so they can work all the time. And it’s hard work. Prepping, cooking, cleaning, taking care of the truck on your own can get a bit overwhelming after a year or so. In our case, we’re focused on hiring the right staff to work full time so we can focus on the entire business … We don’t want to just open one truck.”

 

Cat's Favorites

Catherine Toth has sampled dozens of lunch wagons over the years. Here are three of her favorites:
 

Inferno’s Wood Fire Pizza
Nimitz Highway at Kalihi Street, 561-7409:

A parking lot in Kalihi isn’t the first place you’d think of for great pizza, but Inferno’s Wood Fire Pizza has been serving up some of the island’s best gourmet pies since August. All pizzas, which range in price from $8 to $10, are made with fresh toppings and baked in an 800-degree kiawe-wood-fire oven on site.

Our pick: The Margherita ($10) with San Marzano marinara, fresh mozzarella, whole basil leaves and prosciutto.
 

 

      Photo: David Croxford

T.A.S.T.E.
2012 S. Beretania St., 429-0818:

The name stands for “Tasty Asian-Style Taco Eatery,” which is exactly what it is. Part of the Asian-Mexican fusion trend, this food truck is the real deal, serving five kinds of tacos – and maybe a daily special – on a single corn tortilla with shredded cabbage.

Our pick: The ribeye with kalbi marinade and wasabi dressing ($2.75) will draw you back to try the others.
 

 

      Photo: David Croxford

Melt
Various locations, www.melthonolulu.com or on Twitter @melthnl.

How can you resist a lunch wagon selling gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches? The chefs here – and they really are chefs – use high-quality ingredients to make these sandwiches not just delicious but memorable.

Our pick: If you’re going to go, go big. Try the Melt of Shame ($11), a quarter-pound patty of Kuahiwi beef with sautéed onions and Melt’s special sauce between two grilled Vermont cheddar sandwiches. Oh, yeah.


 

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