Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Zippy's founder Charles Higa holds bags of oxtail soup, left, and chili to be served at the McCully Zippy's outlet on South King Street. Most Zippy's meals are prepared at a central kitchen in Waipio and sent to the individual restaurants to be heated and sold.

Mr. Zip

The Higa brothers, founders
of Zippy's, win a place
in the hall of fame

In October 1966, the first Zippy's opened, on South King Street in McCully. In November two years later, Hawaii's first McDonald's opened, in the Aina Haina Shopping Center.

Taste of the Stars

A benefit for Leeward Community College's culinary program:

Time: 6:30-9:30 p.m. April 30
Place: Hilton Hawaiian Village Coral Ballroom
Cost: $100 until Friday ($85 when charged on American Express); $120 per person afterward. Tables of 10, $1,600; VIP tables for 10, $6,000.
Call: 455-0392
Guest chefs: Alan Wong, Randal Ishizu, Roberto Los Banos, Chai Chaowasaree, Wayne Hirabayashi, Hiroshi Fukui, Douglas Lum, Dean Okimoto, Richard Wagner, Darryl Fujita, Don Maruyama, Göran Streng, Roy Yamaguchi, D.K. Kodama, Colin Nishida, Eric Leterc, Ian Riseley, Russell Siu

The score now stands at Zippy's, 23 restaurants; McDonald's, 87. But you'd have to score the victory for Zippy's.

McDonald's, after all, had a multibazillion-dollar conglomerate behind it; Zippy's had the Higa brothers -- Charles and Francis. But that turned out to be plenty.

The Higas opened their single saimin stand just before McDonald's touched off the fast-food tsunami that swamped so many local drive-ins.

Zippy's survived, thrived, diversified -- and pretty much set the bar for that elusive culinary form: "local food" (difficult to describe, but we know it when we taste it).

This is how Charles Higa defines his menu: "We have local food, mostly for the local people. With other stuff."

Few places have such an institutional hold on us: Zip Min for after the game, Zip Pacs for the beach, Zippy's Chili for school fund-raisers. When we move away, we crave that hamburger curry and those chicken plates. When we come back, very often it's first stop Zippy's.

In recognition of all of this, Leeward Community College will induct the Higa brothers into its Culinary Hall of Fame on April 30 during the benefit "Taste of the Stars."

Joining the Higas as inductees will be Helen Chock of Helena's Hawaiian Food, Hari Kojima of "Let's Go Fishing" fame and Myrtle Lee, retired president of Island Holidays Tours.

Randal Ishizu, executive chef at the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa, met up with Charles Higa, founder of Zippy's, at the "Taste of the Stars" event three years ago. Ishizu's first food-service job was washing dishes at Zippy's.

LCC's annual dinner gala -- a fund-raiser for the school's culinary program --features a roster of 18 Oahu chefs offering up a deluxe buffet. For the price of admission you get unlimited access to dishes such as Kauai Shrimp and Mussel Braised with Chorizo and Saffron Broth, by Randal Ishizu, executive chef of the J.W. Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa.

That's a long way from a Zip Pac, which marked Ishizu's introduction to food service. Ishizu hired on as a dishwasher at Zippy's right after high school, eventually making his way to line cook. He worked there 18 months before going on to culinary school at LCC.

As inexperienced as he was, Ishizu recognized how well organized the kitchen was and how that contributed to consistent quality -- values that still come to mind as he runs a resort kitchen.

"They even had a health inspector that would check on you. Everyone would get all nervous ... scramble to hear this guy was coming, like he was the general or something." (He turned out to be a "nice, older Japanese man. But real stringent.")

The Higas were working in wholesale meat distribution with their father and two other brothers when it became clear that the family business was too small to support all of them and their growing families.

When the Makiki property became available, Charles and Francis decided to strike out on their own. "He and I started talking, 'What should we open?'" Charles Higa recalls. "The first idea was a car wash."

But he grew interested in drive-ins, visiting several and talking to their owners. He and Francis decided on a restaurant, naming it named for the newly instituted ZIP code system.

From the beginning, Zippy's was open 24 hours. "It was crazy. We worked 16 hours a day. ... He was night; I was day." He was 36 with a young family; Francis was 32. "Was so busy ... was so hard work."

The Zippy's menu started with saimin, but quickly expanded, Higa says, to "stew, chili, whatever, so sales were much better."

Chili, of course, has become Zippy's signature dish, selling at the rate of more than 150,000 pounds per month.

The recipe is basically what it was in the 1966, even though the first Zippy's cook never wrote down the recipe and left after just a year.

Higa -- with no formal cooking training -- took over the kitchen and reconstructed the recipe based on supply records.

"I did the buying, so I wrote down what he put in." (Higa still controls the buying for the entire chain.) "It wasn't that hard." Thus was a classic born.

The chili was originally cooked in 15-gallon pots; it's now made in 300-gallon batches in a central kitchen in Waipio and delivered to the various restaurants in 8-pound bags to be heated up and served.

The same goes for most of Zippy's favorites -- oxtail soup, curries, stuffing, gravy and more are made in Waipio. The practice is economical in terms of production, Higa says, and ensures consistency among all the restaurants.

Five years after opening restaurant No. 1, the Higas added a Kaimuki outlet.

"The decision was, we had this, it was all settled down. We thought sales were max already. That's how it all started."

In 2000, Zippy's Inc. became FCH Enterprises (for Francis and Charles Higa) and now includes the restaurants, Napoleon's Bakery, Osaka Okazuya, Kahala Sushi, Food Solutions International, A Catered Experience, ACE Express and the online mail-order business

Higa says the key to the business was to keep growing and keep up with the times. Be true to local favorites, but continually update the menu and upgrade the restaurants. Stick with what works, and cut your losses on what doesn't. Tacos, for instance, and pizza. "I guess we didn't have the expertise," Higa shrugs. "We gave up."

Other fast-food chains, "they don't compete with us," Higa says. "They have their own customers; we have our own customers."

He's so unthreatened by the mega-chains that he allows Zippy's Chili to be sold in Pizza Hut and Taco Bell outlets. "It didn't hurt us."

Now, a few words on the other brother, Francis, who died in 1999. They come from Chef Alan Wong, a nationally known chef with three restaurants in Hawaii and one in Japan.

But in the mid-'90s, Wong was building his reputation at a Big Island resort, hoping one day to open his own place. One night he cooked a private dinner for a group of potential investors, including Francis Higa.

"I was really young, really gullible and really afraid," Wong says.

By dinner's end, Higa had pledged, not Zippy's money, but his own as sole investor in Wong's new business. Eventually he offered the chef space for his restaurant in a King Street building that was supposed to have become accounting headquarters for Zippy's.

Wong, used to an oceanside resort setting, recalls being suspicious of the location -- "no view" -- but Higa told him the demographics were good. It wasn't Waikiki or downtown, but close to both, and close to Manoa and upper Makiki, where lots of disposable income was up for grabs.

"He said, 'Eh, good place.' "

Wong opened small in 1995 with just 25 employees. "The staff was bare bones. ... When one person called in sick or one person quit, it crippled us. I went to him for advice and he said, 'You know what, you gotta hire a lot of part-timers ... so you don't get crippled that way.' "

Simple advice, Wong says now, but at the time he was being conservative with his investor's money, trying not to overextend. Higa helped him realize it was a false economy.

"I hired five young kids right after that and I was never crippled again."

Conrad Nonaka's job as head of the Culinary Institute of the Pacific is to help educate a new generation of chefs, and he says they would be wise to study the Zippy's example.

Consistent quality throughout the chain helped solidify local support so that it could withstand intense competition from "the big boys" -- mainland fast-food chains, Nonaka says.

"It shows the kids what they can achieve through perseverance. 'If they can do it, we can do it, too.' It's a good thought to have."

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.


E-mail to Features Editor


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Calendars]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2004 Honolulu Star-Bulletin --