CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ellen Auyong, left, an adopted aunt, Debra Makishi, youngest daughter, Sandra Makishi, daughter, Yuko Makishi, the mother, and Miki Viloria, a cousin, shared a moment in front of Ebisu Catering Service. CLICK FOR LARGE
New generation seeks place for tradition
Two daughters want to continue the Ebisu Catering Service business their grandparents started
EBISU CATERING SERVICE, the Japanese style okazuya, must leave its South King Street home of 42 years next Sunday. But unlike many family entrepreneurs of their time, the founders do have a younger generation willing to carry on the business -- if only they can find a new place to do it.
Three generations of the Makishi family have operated the business since 1964, including Debra and Sandra Makishi, who have worked at the Okazuya since they were eight years old.
Now in their 30s, the siblings are searching for a new location to continue the mom-and-pop operation, which has been a staple among generations of McCully area residents.
The loyalty of long-time customers has kept the business afloat during turbulent market changes and an influx of new competition.
The family's latest challenge is finding a commercial kitchen at an affordable price in a market of rising rents and business costs.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Gary Yamauchi peered through glass to choose his lunch items from Ebisu Catering Service. The okazuya shop must look for a new location after 42 years at 1915 S. King St. CLICK FOR LARGE
THE BURN SCARS on Debra Makishi's right arm are evidence of years of working a deep fryer at her family's okazuya on South King Street.
Makishi and her sister, Sandra, now in their 30s, began making musubi and rolling sushi at eight years old. It was their first job at Ebisu Catering Service, the business that their grandparents, Koki and Haruko, started with their late father, William, in 1964.
The okazuya, a staple among generations of McCully-area residents for more than 40 years, is closing its doors next Sunday, when its lease expires.
The family is searching for a new location in the same area, to accommodate long-time customers such as Russell Tabata who has operated a dental office next door for more than 30 years.
Tabata, who patronizes the takeout at least twice a week, also has been the family's dentist over three generations, lending advice on business and life.
"Dr. Tabata taught me to give back to customers, so we support our customers where ever we can," Debra said. The family wears T-shirts made by a long-time customer, for example.
"We have an obligation to our customers to be here," she said "They supported us through the years, even in hard times -- that's what gets me up in the morning."
It's that philosophy of loyalty that has kept the mom-and-pop operation alive through turbulent times and a spike in competition. It also has kept the sisters in the business despite the long days that start at 4:45 a.m. and end at 6 p.m. The business is open daily for breakfast and lunch except on Wednesdays.
The siblings recall the grueling work schedule even as children, when their parents would haul them to the rusted, 1,000-square-foot commercial kitchen with a service counter along the sidewalk at 1915 S. King Street, where the family would work from sunrise and well into the night.
Once the okazuya closed, the family would prepare food for catering and often work at evening parties.
The business is where the sisters honed their math skills as children, often being put to work collecting money and helping customers using a paper and pencil to calculate prices.
Sandra recalls living in the tiny, one-bedroom "shack" connected to Ebisu's building up until she was two years old so that her mother could work while taking care of her.
"That's the reason they had us, they had us to work -- we're slave labor here," Sandra said jokingly. "Our customers have seen us grow up here. We really were never allowed to work somewhere else."
However, Sandra and Debra did venture out in 1997 to experience life outside of Ebisu. They both worked in retail for seven years, but quit their jobs in 2004 when the family needed someone to run the business.
THE SISTERS operate the okazuya, which has eight employees, with their mother, Yuko, who works part time, an uncle, an aunt, cousins and a few non-family members, who each play a role in preparing the 40 pounds of chow fun, 150 cups of rice and variety of Japanese delicacies that customers have come to love.
Most of the business now comes from the okazuya, as catering functions declined over the years. The family serves about 200 people daily, most of whom have been long-time customers.
"It's like having your mom cook for you," said Jay Ishibashi, who has been a customer for more than 10 years, buying food two to three times a week. "Call me nostalgic, but I like the old, family-run businesses."
Continuing to operate a family business in a market of rising rents and higher food prices is an ongoing challenge for mom-and-pop operations like Ebisu, which has seen many small businesses succumb to the volatile market.
Finding a commercial kitchen at an affordable price where the business can continue to maintain the same prices is the latest challenge for Ebisu, which runs on an extremely low profit margin, Sandra said.
"With everything going up in price -- oil, etc. -- everything is getting so expensive so it's a real challenge," Sandra said. "But we have to continue this."
Troy Lima, a McCully resident, who has come to the okazuya over the past 30 years since he was eight years old for the good food and affordable prices, feels their hardship.
"A lot of people grew up eating at this place," he said. "It's going to be sad to see these guys go."