CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
James Asato, left, and sister Shirley grew up working in the family restaurant, KC Drive Inn, home of the famous waffle dog. Although KC Drive Inn has since closed its doors, James' son Dayton continues to bring waffle dogs to the public at events around town.
Blood, sweat & waffle dogs
The legacy of the Asato family restaurants is a man, a secret batter and the family irons
By Betty Shimabukuro
The idea might have come from someone else, but the sweat equity that made the Waffle Hot Dog an island icon was all invested by the Asato family.
That slightly sweet, slightly salty, crunchy-edged bit of nostalgia represents for the Asatos years and years of relentless effort.
Taste of the Stars
A food and wine gala featuring dishes by 22 chefs, including Alan Wong, Roy Yamagchi, D.K. Kodama, Hiroshi Fukui and Russell Siu
When: 6 to 9 p.m. May 6
Place: Leeward Community College lawn
Tickets: $100; reserved seating $170
Also: To be inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame are Jiro and Agnes Asato of KC Drive Inn, Hans Weiler of Hans Weiler Foods and Faith Ogawa of Glow Hawaii and Dining by Faith
"I think we estimated 20 or 30 million Waffle Hot Dogs, based on how much we did per day, times the days in the year, times the years we were in the business," says Asato grandson Dayton, inheritor of the waffle irons.
But to backtrack a bit: The Waffle Hot Dog came to town courtesy of Hawaii's first drive-in, KC Drive Inn, founded by George Knapp and Elwood Christensen (thus the KC) in the late 1920s. Unable to make a go of the business, they sold it in 1934 to one of their managers, Jiro Asato, for $100.
With the shop came a couple of waffle machines and a whole lot of hard work.
Jiro and wife Agnes also struggled with KC, but they made it through the Depression and the war years, to thrive during the drive-in boom, from the '50s to the coming of McDonald's.
Leeward Community College's culinary arts program will honor the Asatos at its annual Taste of the Stars benefit, inducting them into the program's Hall of Fame. The honor will be accepted by the couple's children, however. Jiro died in 1960, and Agnes, at age 92, is in a care home.
At various times the Asato empire extended to KC Coffee Shop and KC Annex, both in Moiliili; Mr. Waffle stands in Kailua and Waipahu; KC Snack Shop in what was then Holiday Mart on Kaheka Street; the Wisteria restaurant in town and Wisteria 2 in Kaneohe. But the flagship and the one that outlasted all the others was the drive-in, located first in Waikiki and then on Kapahulu Avenue. It finally closed last March. With business slowing down, the family decided to sell the property.
It's possible all this restaurant entrepreneurship was simply in the blood -- on the maternal side, anyway. Agnes Asato's older sister, Alice Nako, and her husband owned Like Like Drive-In; younger sister Norma Tamashiro and her husband owned Sei's Family Restaurant; and brother Jack Gusukuma ran the concessions at the Central and Nuuanu YMCAs, plus an eatery called Jack's Drive-In.
"I always used to brag to my friends that I would never starve," Dayton says. "My relatives would always feed me."
Jiro and Agnes had three young daughters when they took over KC -- Elsie, Mildred and Helen -- and, despite the 16-hour days of the early years, managed to add two sons, James and Roy.
The children remember no holidays. The restaurant was open every day, closing just a few hours for cleaning.
"Oh, we all worked at the restaurant, from peeling potatoes to cooking, cleaning, everything," Helen says. "Whatever had to be done."
Outside their schoolwork, their time was monopolized by the restaurant. No normal teenage activities.
"We couldn't go to proms," James said. "I can complain now. I couldn't complain then."
"Maybe my mother would lend an ear," Helen said, "but my father was very stern."
The family did gather for dinner every night, though, Helen remembers. Then, at 7 or 8 p.m., their father would leave for work and stay all night. Their mother would go in at 4 a.m. and work until 5 or 6 p.m.
COURTESY THE ASATO FAMILY
The Jiro and Agnes Asato family worked hard through several generations to run their chain of KC restaurants.
Agnes Asato is no longer able to talk about the early days, but in a 1991 interview with Pacific Business News, she described the daily grind: "We used to make all our own root beer with our own syrup. We used to chop our own french fries, grind our own ice, buy our pickles by the barrel and grind our own hamburger."
The Waffle Dog sold for 10 cents; earnings for a day were about $12.
Helen says she sometimes felt luckier than other kids her age who had to work and turn their wages over to support their families. She worked, too, but she was paid and earned tips. "I went to university with the money I made."
Oldest sisters Elsie and Mildred both worked full time in the family restaurants until their retirement in the 1990s; youngest son Roy became company president. Helen and James both married and moved to California but returned after their father's death.
"We all said we weren't going to be in the restaurant business," Helen said, "and we all came back."
The family has grown to 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Many of the third generation also worked the restaurants -- Helen's son and daughter put in about 30 years apiece and were side by side with James' son, Dayton, when KC shut down.
The future of the Waffle Hot Dog is in Dayton's hands. He's working on restarting the business on a small scale, perhaps a kiosk that would also serve the KC signature Ono Ono Shakes (made with peanut butter).
For now he offers his services -- and his waffle iron and special batter -- as a fundraiser for community groups. He'll be at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii's Children's Day festival next Sunday, for example, and if past experience is any indication, the lines will be formidable. The wait for a Waffle Dog at the cultural center's New Year's festival was more than an hour long.
Dayton figures he's made 6,000 Waffle Hot Dogs for various good causes. It's his way of giving back.
"The goal is to repay," he says. "We've enjoyed a lot of years of business."
BACK TO TOP
Waffle dog technique in the machine
Dayton Asato's relationship with the Waffle Hot Dog began at the KC Snack Shop when he was in the eighth grade. "I started out as janitor. I used to empty grease traps. I think I'm the only relative who can honestly say I started from the bottom."
But because everybody did everything in those days, he picked up the waffle technique early as well.
Last week he demonstrated the process -- in his audience were Leeward Community College culinary students who'd never seen such a thing.
Key to it all is the machine, from the outside a nondescript rectangle about 2 feet long. Inside are six Waffle Dog-shaped compartments.
Dayton says the cost of the machine is what protected KC's Waffle Dog from competition. It's a custom order that first requires the making of a die that casts the mold that shapes each dog. This can cost up to $30,000. Each machine purchased using that die would cost $1,500 to $2,000.
But they are incredibly durable. The first waf fle machine lasted 50 years; the one he brought to LCC was 70.
The process is quick: Batter is poured across the mold, then a hot dog goes into each indentation. A knife is used to spread the spread over the hot dogs, and the lid is closed and fastened shut. Within moments an odd, squeaky drone issues from the machine -- the sound of the expanding hot dogs and batter wrestling with the locked lid.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Whipping up a waffle dog,
step by step
1. (Upper left)
Waffle batter is poured into the molds.
2. (Upper right) Hot dogs go in each mold, then batter is spread over the hot dogs.
3. (Lower left) The lid is closed and fastened shut. The dogs cook for five to eight minutes.
4. (Lower right) Crispy edges help indicated the waffle dogs are done. With some quick slicing, their ready to serve.
The formula for the batter remains virtually unchanged since the first Waffle Hot Dog was made, Dayton says, and it's a secret, so don't even bother asking.
"I actually like to put extra and let it ooze out. My feeling is I like to get every inch of the product that people can eat."
He will allow, though, that he uses Bar S brand hot dogs. They have the strongest casing, able to hold up to the pressure of the iron. Lesser franks could explode.
It takes five to eight minutes to complete a batch. "We have timers on the machines, but those are the first to go, so you kinda get a smell for it. I can tell when it starts to brown."
Then he'll lift the lid and check -- if the edges aren't quite ready, the lid goes back down. "The edges will get like senbei -- nice and crispy."
The little bits that break off never go to waste, he said. "People will come by the machine and pick off the edges."
If you really, really, really need a Waffle Dog fix, Island Glacier in Waimalu Shopping Center (485-1377) is using the KC recipe. Dayton sells them the batter and lends them a machine. To arrange for a Waffle Dog booth at a community event, call 478-6440.