DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
The lunch crowd goes out the door waiting to order at Nico's at Pier 38, a family run business operated by Nico Chaize and his wife, Juliana. Behind the counter, front to back, are Krissy Among, Christina Panapa and Hana Saina. CLICK FOR LARGE
The French Connection
Nico's at Pier 38 has reeled in customers with its catch of the day and local plate lunches
Juliana Chaize brought home a great catch when she married her French husband, Nico, who now serves the catch of the day at his namesake restaurant on the edge of Pier 38.
The couple sells about 500 plates each day to hungry customers, many of whom line up at Nico's at Pier 38 during the busy lunch hour to get the day's fresh catch and local plate lunches with a French gourmet twist.
The restaurant has come a long way from the days when Juliana went door to door offering free food and coupons to attract workers in the surrounding businesses.
Now customers seek out the popular pier-side diner, which has roughly 400 subscribers to its daily e-mail alert of the day's fresh catch.
NICO'S AT PIER 38
Address: 1133 N. Nimitz Highway
Hours: Monday-Friday, 6:30 a.m - 6 p.m.; Saturday, 6:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
On The Web: nicospier38.com
"I brought home the catch of the day and then we started serving it at a restaurant," said Juliana, who studied French at the University of Hawaii and met her husband in 1999 in a small casual restaurant while working as a hair and makeup artist in Los Angeles.
Nico, who is from Lyon, France, was working as a cook at a French bistro at the time. The couple, who were married in 2000, eventually moved back to Hawaii and opened the restaurant -- their first business venture -- in 2004.
"It started off grass roots -- now we have all kinds of people: local people, the downtown crowd, government officials and people from the "Lost" crew across the street," said Juliana, whose father owns the fishing supply store that shares a warehouse with Nico's.
Nico, who didn't speak English when the couple first met, quickly learned the pidgin slang and how to satisfy the palettes of local customers, which make up about 90 percent of the business.
He learned Hawaiian and Asian recipes and cooking secrets from customers who would bring him chili water, fresh Hanalei poi and secret recipes for lomi salmon, which he experimented with in creating the menu.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
The husband and wife team of Nico and Juliana Chaize own and operate Nico's at Pier 38. "It started off grass roots -- now we have all kinds of people: local people, the downtown crowd, government officials and people from the "Lost" crew across the street," said Juliana. CLICK FOR LARGE
The unusual local plate lunches, which incorporates gourmet seasonings and side dishes such as seafood in a tomato saffron broth, has attracted a number of the area's blue-collar workers, many of whom were unfamiliar with gourmet cuisine.
"This is a blue-collar neighborhood and you have a lot of names of things that come from fancy restaurants," Juliana said. "But people were willing to try. It was exotic for this location and different, which made it fun for people."
The restaurant, which has been featured twice in the New York Times as one of the best spots in Honolulu, has grown substantially since its first year when it posted $400,000 in gross revenue. Today, it records annual gross revenue of about $1.2 million and sells about 500 plates a day of mostly fish, compared to 150 plates in 2004. An average plate lunch costs about $7.95.
DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Nico Chaize, co-owner of Nico's at Pier 38, and his crew prepare and serve food to the lunchtime crowd. From left, Chaize, Rodney Roque, George Siores and Keala Cleveland show some of the plate lunches they serve. Chaize is holding one of the most popular dishes, furikake pan-seared ahi with ginger garlic cilanro dip. Keala is holding a grilled ahi sandwich. CLICK FOR LARGE
"It's the only place in Honolulu besides John Dominis where you can sit beside fishing boats and get that atmosphere -- the Honolulu Harbor ambiance," said Tim Wrath, who frequents the restaurant with his wife, Donna, at least once or twice a week for the fresh fish and reasonable prices.
But business at the pier hasn't always been easy for the sole restaurant in the fledgling so-called commercial fishing village.
Nico's was forced to close on several occasions, including once when there was a bomb scare on one of the fishing boats in the harbor and another time when a major water main broke on Nimitz Highway.
In addition, oven equipment has broken down in the middle of a rush of 400 customers and, occasionally, there's simply no fish to buy on the auction block.
"We were a little worried, we didn't know how it was going to go," Nico said. "But that's what makes it fun."
Other obstacles to running a restaurant has been the cost of food in Hawaii, which is about 20 percent higher than on the mainland, he added. The couple spends about 35 percent of gross revenue to buy high-quality food, particularly fresh seafood each morning from the fish auction next door.
"It's hard for a little business like me to buy products at the right prices," he said.
But so far, those sacrifices have paid off. The business now hosts private weekend parties on site and has started featuring local bands during lunch on Saturdays, which used to be one of the slower business days.
"Now it's one of the busiest days," Nico said. "It's the little things we do to make people happy."