Friday, January 29, 1999

Star-Bulletin file photo
Alan Wong will open three food
establishments at the Ala Moana store.

Liberty House
recruits chef for
local flavor

Wong will oversee a
restaurant, coffee bar and
gourmet market

By Peter Wagner


After a rough year of store closings and legal skirmishes in its costly Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Liberty House has something to cheer about.

The retailer yesterday announced plans to open a restaurant, coffee bar and gourmet marketplace this year at its Ala Moana Center store operated by noted Hawaii chef Alan Wong.

"I think it validates the long-term viability of Liberty House," said company president John Monahan, who announced the deal yesterday. "Alan Wong is willing to invest in Liberty House's future, and this move has the approval of both our boards as well as the lenders and unsecured creditors."

Wong plans to hire 75 to 100 employees for the three food operations, offsetting 81 employees to be displaced by the closing of the Garden Court, Gazebo and bakery at the Ala Moana store.

Plans call for the yet-unnamed restaurant to replace the Garden Court Restaurant on the store's third floor. The gourmet marketplace is to replace the Gazebo on the fourth floor and the coffee bar is to be added to the second floor.

The restaurant, to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, is to feature a central "exhibition kitchen" and be flanked by a bar.

"It's going to have a wood-burning oven and kitchen right in front of you where you can see what's going on," said Mark McGuffie, former manager at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows and Manele Bay Hotel on Lanai who will oversee operations for Wong.

McGuffie said the gourmet marketplace will offer high-quality produce -- lettuce, tomatoes, fish, cheese, meats, desserts and other specialty products mostly marketed to restaurant chefs.

Retail analyst Stephany Sofos said the struggling retailer is making a bold move.

"They've met the competition," she said, noting the September opening of a Neiman Marcus store at Ala Moana Center featuring two restaurants and a coffee bar. "They're going head-to-head and saying we can compete, and that's good."

Liberty House filed for bankruptcy last March with about $180 million in debts. The move, which resulted in a struggle between competing boards of directors, was triggered by Hawaii's slow economy, the Asian economic crisis, dwindling tourism, and marketing mistakes.

McGuffie said Liberty House is putting about $2 million into the renovations, to begin in April, for phased openings of the coffee bar this summer, the restaurant in fall and the marketplace in late fall.

Monahan said Hackfield's Restaurant will remain at the Ala Moana store and that Gazebo restaurants will continue to operate at Liberty House stores in Pearlridge Center, Windward Mall and downtown.

McGuffie said the deal will triple the size of Alan Wong Restaurants Inc., now operating a single restaurant on South King Street. Wong could not be reached for comment.

Barbara Tunno, vice president of marketing at Liberty House, said Wong will bring not only award-winning cuisine but a "local" element that the store has been seeking since filing for bankruptcy reorganization last March.

"Liberty House is a local store and chef Wong is a local chef," said Tunno. "This fits the direction our store is undertaking, to be Hawaii's store."

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