Tip Top Motel, Café & Bakery Preserves a No-frills, Family Atmosphere on Kaua‘i

SmallBiz Editor’s Choice Awards Hall of Fame: Fourth-generation owner Jonathan Ota maintains the spirit of the original Līhu‘e breakfast spot started in 1916.
05 23 Hb Best Of Small Business Hero 13 Tip Top Motel
Photo: Christian Kahahawai

Feed the people. Give them what they want. It’s a simple formula, but it’s served the Tip Top Motel, Café & Bakery well since 1916.

The Tip Top Café was founded by Denjiro Ota, who worked as a cook for sugar cane plantation manager Albert Wilcox. Ota was asked to open a café – a place where the businessmen of Līhu‘e could enjoy breakfast – so he did, inside the year-old Tip Top Building.

In 1925, his son Mitchell took over and expanded the café’s bakery operations. (Its famous pancakes are still made according to his recipe.) When the Tip Top Building was demolished in 1965, Mitchell Ota moved the café a halfmile to its current location and built a 34-room motel around it.

Fourth-generation Jonathan Ota has managed the place for the past 32 years.

“We have a wonderful crew of employees who’ve been with us a long time and are tuned in to what people need,” he says. “Good, consistent service helps people know what to expect when they come in, and to leave happy.”

He’s been careful to preserve the no-frills, family atmosphere he grew up with. “People want that same old feel, so we are sensitive to that,” he says.

The most popular dish at the café is the oxtail soup, Ota says, a recipe given to his grandfather decades ago. He credits his grandfather for having the foresight to expand into motel operations. When business is slow on one side, the other side generally helps to balance things out, he says.

Over the past century-plus, there have been highs, like in 2008 when the company was named by the U.S. Small Business Administration as the state’s top family-owned small business. And lows, like the million-dollars-plus in damage caused by 1992’s Hurricane Iniki. There have been strange times, too, like when a truck crashed through a wall and into the restaurant in 2019; thankfully, no one was hurt.

But Tip Top’s future is up in the air. “I am not married and don’t have children,” explains Ota. “Passing it along to the next generation isn’t going to happen. We will need to figure out a plan. It’s a simple business. But a family business that is over 100 years old, well, there aren’t a lot of them.”