Talk Story with Paul Yokota

President of FCH Enterprises, owner of Zippy’s restaurants

Brothers Francis and Charlie Higa made a wise choice in 1966, when they opened a drive-in restaurant called Zippy’s on South King Street instead of a car wash, and launched one of the most popular chains in Hawaii. Today, the parent company, FCH Enterprises, is still privately held by the Higa family, but has expanded beyond the chain of 24 Zippy’s locations.

Restaurants have a notoriously high failure rate. How has Zippy’s managed to stay in business for almost 50 years?
It probably has something to do with the fact that you can find something for everyone, whether you are in elementary school and you like the saimin noodles, or you are in college and like the plate lunches, or are a senior who enjoys our weekly specials. Our customers are very loyal and they develop relationships with our staff. Frankly, this is what creates the Zippy’s experience. We can build a great restaurant with fantastic décor and technology, but, at the end of the day, it is about the relationships you build there. The staff knows you, they know what you like and how you like it.

Zippy’s has more than 200 dishes on its menu, far more than most restaurants. How do you manage that?
It is a challenge. Because of our large menu, we have to continuously train and update our kitchen and service staff. We have tried to eliminate some items, but the feedback we get makes it difficult because people are so tied to their favorite dishes. We also have certain products that are centrally produced, like our chili, so we can provide those items to our restaurants with consistency.

You are one of the largest buyers of food in the state. Do you feel a responsibility to source from local farmers?
Yes, this is one our most important initiatives. For our salads, we are now sourcing our greens from Kunia Farms, an aquaponics farm. We believe we can support our local farming industry because of the volume we purchase. We help agricultural ventures succeed. Aquaponics, for instance, is not an easy business to be in. You need a critical volume of customers to make it work and this is where we are making a difference.
Our coffee is a Waialua blend, which means the beans are grown in Waialua. We did that because we wanted to have something from the Islands that would also sustain the local coffee farmers. We try to source locally as often as possible. And we also use local distributers and local producers as well.

You have 22 Zippy’s restaurants on Oahu, plus one in Kahului and one in Hilo. Any further expansion planned?
We are fortunate to be constantly asked to come to other Islands. We look at all of those requests very seriously. Our challenge is to make sure that we can get a quality product to those Islands consistently so our customers get the full Zippy’s experience. We are very serious about that and it takes us a while to figure out a location and then figure out the logistics. I don’t have news about expansion plans in the near future, but we are very encouraged that we get asked.

“People ask me all the time about the secret ingredient (in Zippy’s chili), but I can’t tell.”

Describe the process for opening up a new restaurant.
For us it starts with getting to know the community. In Hilo, for instance, we got into the community a couple of years before we actually opened. We met with the folks at the local level in the school system and in the business circles – to get to know them and give them a chance to know us. I remember going for a function at Waiakea High School in promotion of a drug-free community. That was our attempt to convey what our values are and what we stand for.
Once the exact location is determined, there is a lot of effort placed on design and architecture: How do we reflect that community and that Island? In Hilo, we have photos of the volcano that you won’t find at any other Zippy’s.
We also try to source directly from providers in Hilo and Maui. Arranging that is another complexity in the logistics process.

Would you ever expand to the mainland?
Perhaps some day, if we can figure out the logistics, but not for now.

What are your other holdings?
The reason we talk more about FCH Enterprises now is because we want to illustrate that our company has different facets. It is made up of our core business, Zippy’s; Napoleon’s Bakery; Food Solutions International, which is a USDA plant that provides food for distribution not only through our restaurants but also at supermarkets everywhere. Then we have Pomaikai Ballrooms (at the Dole Cannery) with its separate management and distinct menu and talent. We also have A Catered Experience, again, with its own culinary operations.
Having diverse businesses bodes well for recruitment. If you want to join our company, you have different outlets where you can grow.

What kind of experience do employees get by working at your company?
We have about 2,400 employees. For our Zippy’s operation, we have an education and development department, which not only trains new employees, but is big into development. A big part of their job is to take employees who have shown interest in advancing and career pathing them into supervisory roles, if they choose, and then upward into management roles. They train and maintain standards for our staff. But they also monitor and mentor and develop people who are up-and-coming. That is the lifeline of our company. As long as people are willing to learn, we want to make sure we give them opportunity.

Your chili is onolicious. Who came up with the recipe and what is the secret ingredient?
That is an original recipe. It is very closely held. People ask me all the time about the secret ingredient, but I can’t tell.  At the end of the day, our chili is a great comfort food – people have it at family gatherings or with friends. For folks who have been away on the mainland, it tastes like home.

This interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

Categories: Leadership