Navigating Change

Two new leaders form a powerful partnership

November, 2003

At first glance, it seems an extremely unlikely match. In fact, earlier this year, when the marketing folks for Zippy’s restaurant chain and the not-for-profit Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) thought the two should be working together, the organizations’ heads, Zippy’s President Jason Higa and PVS’s Master Navigator and Chairman Nainoa Thompson, each wondered why.

They soon found each other and their respective organizations to be a perfect match in important ways. “I would have never initially thought of the link until you really think about family and family values,” muses the iconic Thompson. Higa concurs; saying, “It’s clear there are a lot of similarities, if not some very identical themes, between our organizations.”

The deal, worth about $75,000 (making Zippy’s PVS’s largest corporate sponsor), was sealed at that meeting with a handshake. Higa says, “That’s really typical for our

organization, at least the way my dad did things. It was kind of surprising for me coming from a background of being an attorney, but when I started working for Zippy’s, I quickly learned that contracts are not necessary in some cases.”


One of the common themes for Zippy’s and the Polynesian Voyaging Society has been the strong leadership that both Higa’s and Thompson’s late fathers exercised over each organization. Jason Higa’s father, Francis, and Francis’ brother Charles cofounded Zippy’s in 1966. Since the first restaurant opened in McCully, the chain has grown to 23 locations on Oahu. The most recent, in Mililani, opened in April of this year. Zippy’s employs about 2,300 Hawaii residents.

Before he passed away unexpectedly in 1999, Francis Higa got to see one of his big dreams come to fruition. Zippy’s opened up Food Solutions in Waipahu,

a central USDA-certified kitchen and one of the largest in the region. This set the stage for expansion.

Jason Higa says, “He was very committed to the business and had high expectations of himself and others. Of course, I think that’s evidenced by the success of the business.” Higa declines to reveal Zippy’s sales figures, but says sales have been growing steadily.

Two years after Francis Higa passed away, Thompson would lose his father, former Bishop Estate trustee Myron “Pinky” Thompson, who had been instrumental in guiding the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

Thompson says when the voyaging canoe Hokulea swamped in Hawaiian waters in 1978, guilt drove him to be by himself and the PVS experienced “an absolute vacuum in leadership.”

He says, “I was in the front yard one night looking at the stars by myself and he came up behind me and put his hand on my left shoulder and said, ‘Mom and I have been talking and we know you have to go … but you don’t know how to do this. Get your whole leadership team together and I want to talk to them at one time.'”

The PVS team gathered in a small room at the Honolulu Medical Group and Pinky Thompson renavigated the group’s path. Nainoa Thompson says, “He forced us into the obligation that our greater role than sailors is to be teachers and embodied in that was hope and embodied in that was service. So, that single meeting really set the voyaging agenda.”


That voyaging agenda sails full speed ahead in May 2004, with Hokulea’s planned expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). The voyage is part of a multi-agency project called Navigating Change, focused on raising awareness and ultimately motivating people to change their attitudes and behaviors to better care for our islands and ocean resources.

It’s a mission that resonates with Thompson. “I’ll be quite frank. I am angry with big businesses that came into Hawaii, used what it could in its useful life and just left. It just angers me – left our place polluted, left our communities with less than appropriate ways of moving forward. I want to see a larger obligation by business to contribute to the well-being of our people in these small islands of ours. Zippy’s is certainly a success story to that,” he says.

Zippy’s has been supporting PVS through sales of special menu items such as adobo chicken or chili bentos, where portions of the proceeds going toward its PVS commitment. They have also created kids’ menus in partnership with PVS that give environmental and conservation messages. Zippy’s will also likely be involved in some of the provisioning for Hokulea’s voyages.

Thompson says that, when he senses that a business’ purpose is based on money, he doesn’t want any part of it, because the company’s values are different than PVS’. Zippy’s has helped change his perception of business.

He says, “All I remember was getting up from our meeting, walking out the door and saying goodbye in a way where there was a lot of aloha that helped me have more faith in the importance of business of being such a powerful agent in shaping the well-being of Hawaii.”


Higa says his father and uncle’s way of operating a business and their values are simply being carried on. “We’re an island state, which is very unique in and of itself, and we have limited resources. We still, with those limitations, can sustain things, not only for ourselves, but for future generations. I think that’s why we and Nainoa had wanted to focus on things like the keiki menu, because it’s about educating the future generations,” he says.

With Francis Higa’s dream – the USDA-approved central kitchen – cemented, Zippy’s is planning to grow in the near future. The kitchen, under the Food Solutions moniker, has already enabled Higa to manufacture and sell food products to other businesses. The frozen Zippy’s brand chili in supermarkets comes from there, as well as the chili sold at Hawaii’s Pizza Hut and Taco Bell locations and at the California Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Some local hospitals also serve food products from Food Solutions. Foodland’s deli carries Food Solutions’ stews, curries and spareribs. There is even a retailer on Maui serving Portuguese bean soup made at Food Solutions.

Zippy’s first Neighbor Island restaurant is targeted to open on Maui in late 2005. Higa says there is still room for growth on Oahu, while Kona and Hilo are also future contenders for restaurant sites.

There’s been a significant, but subtle, corporate change along the way. In 2000, Jason Higa and company decided to change the company’s name from Zippy’s Inc. to FCH (Francis and Charles Higa) Inc. Jason Higa says, “It didn’t make sense for our name to be Zippy’s at that point, so we created a name that would be more representative of our operations, and, as it ended up, it was also a means of paying tribute to Francis and Charley.”

Higa says FCH’s performance closely follows the state’s and right now he’s positive about Hawaii’s economic growth. “A lot of the direction right now actually had been established by decisions that my father made before he passed away. … At the time he passed away, our central kitchen had just opened and was just starting to operate. Now, in terms of my vision for the future, it’s definitely centered around making the best use of the facility and that logically means further expansion, with additional locations,” he says.

It also means adhering to the mission and values that have brought Zippy’s this far.

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Kelli Abe Trifonovitch