Talk Story with Don Murphy

Founder and owner of his namesake bar, Murphy’s, in downtown Honolulu

March, 2011

Q: What’s the secret to running a great pub?

I think it’s just enjoying what you do and being around people and understanding what your customer wants. I was a customer for enough time that I think I know! It’s basically to be treated well and be able to enjoy yourself. But customers are always looking for something different, like different events. And a lot enjoy getting involved with the community and helping out and, fortunately, we’ve been able to give them that opportunity with our street festivals and fundraisers.

Q: What was your first and biggest street festival?

Well, the biggest one is St. Patrick’s Dayand we probably do another five or six different ones tied to different fundraisers. In May, for instance, we’ll close Merchant Street and do a big dinner, mostly outside, with tables set up in the street and Chinese lanterns, as a fundraiser for the Hawaii Children’s Cancer Foundation. I got involved with it when the daughter of friends was diagnosed with leukemia at 9. She’s now a student at UH – and a survivor – and just a great kid.

I opened Murphy’s in 1987, but we didn’t go out into the street until about 1990. Now, for St. Patrick’s, we get 10,000 to 12,000 people, go through about 3,000 oysters and 2,000 pounds of corn beef. We start cooking about four days before, 16 hours a day, to get it all ready so we can close the street by 6 p.m. that day.

Q: How did the festivals and fundraisers start?

I really needed to get my teeth into something in the community, so I thought I’d start with the University (of Hawaii). It was the first year (head coach) Fred Von Appen came and I called him up and said, “I’d like to do a fundraiser for you,” because I knew the football program needed money. I asked him what he needed and he said a training table, a separate room where the football players can go and eat all the right food to get the proper nutrition. We started up and got enough right off the bat. Over 14 years, we’ve raised almost $1.5 million. It goes to Na Koa, the fundraising arm of the football program. The money goes into a fund, but now it’s primarily going to pay for summer school for the players. We set up the Ben Yee Summer Scholarship Fund. He’s a great guy and a real character and has been a supporter of this for years.

Q: What are some of the other charities you’ve raised money for?

We’ve done one the last couple of years for Hawaii Literacy. And we did one a few years ago for Aloha Airlines to help the people who got laid off, and pay some of their medical bills. That one raised over $100,000, but it was a joint effort of a lot of people. We did the Coaches vs. Cancer fundraiser for three years and one year we were second in the nation in raising money. We also have a beer fest once a month with beer tasting, and the proceeds go to different charities like the Food Bank. We taste beers from different parts of the world and really make it fun.

Q: Are you ever going to give up putting on these big street festivals?

No. I love it. My wife, Marion, has always been the heart of Murphy’s, the one who makes everything a little bit special and puts the finishing touch on everything. And sometimes she’ll say, “You seem down, why don’t you have a fundraiser or something?” There’s just so much more to business than making money. You hear that cliché a lot about giving back, but it’s true. And it’s starting to happen with the younger businessmen in Hawaii. Staying open is important, but the next thing is helping out. Staying open is important because it helps you give more away.

Q: Do you do anything special yourself for St. Patrick’s Day?

About 6 a.m., I’ll meet a good friend of mine down at Murphy’s and we’ll have a shot ofJameson’s Irish whisky in honor of my former partner in the restaurant, Dick Barry, who died about 10 years ago. He was an investment banker out of San Francisco who I worked for and who financed Murphy’s. He once owned the block from Murphy’s down to the old Yokohama Specie Bank. I was working for him running a houseboat rental resort on Shasta Lake. He had been buying property here for years and I handled some leasing of it. I worked for him probably for 20 years. He and I spent a good part of our time together in bars and we both loved Hawaii, so we said, “Let’s go do one there.” We did, named it Murphy’s and started doing St. Patrick’s Day like we always celebrated it in San Francisco. It only took about two or three years before we took it out to the street and now we take over the parking lot across the street from noon on, serve food all day, and, at 6 p.m., close the street and have a band at the top of King and Nuuanu and a DJ on Merchant and Bethel. I hope we can take over Nimitz in the near future. Nah, I’m kidding!

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