Craft is ‘steaking’ his claim
Heading to Han Yang for Korean food one evening, I couldn't miss the sign blaring "Blazin' Steaks" on the unmistakable former Pizza Hut building on North King Street. Basically, they were two words no steak-loving diner could ignore.
"Wow! Let's go there!" I told the b.f., but he could not be swayed from a vision of stone-pot bi bim bab.
No biggie. I would just have to satisfy my curiosity later. I had a feeling it wasn't going to be a traditional family steakhouse in the Chuck's or Buzz's mode, and discovered it's a stripped-down fast-food operation, the next step in Richard Craft's plan to blanket the isles with affordable steak, steak, steak.
You might not have heard of Craft, but surely you've seen one of his $6 steak trailers, whether parked outside the Kapiolani Boulevard 24-Hour Fitness Center or outside the Marukai store at Ward and Auahi. His success is a perfect example of my restaurant philosophy that less done well will attract more diners than a vast menu with few standouts.
What's most surprising, given Craft's graduation from trailers to storefronts, is that he hasn't raised his price in five years. Fearing the wrath of cash-strapped diners who might appreciate the price break, I didn't want to raise the issue, though one of my first thoughts was that people would probably be willing to pay up to $10 for his 8-ounce steak plate. But Craft brought up the subject himself during a phone interview after I had eaten there a couple of times.
"People always ask me, 'Why don't you raise your price? How can you survive on $6?' But I don't want to raise my price, and if I ever do, it would only be because my costs went up and I had no other option," Craft said.
Like many fast-food operations, his is a volume business, so the more storefronts he can open, the more cash he collects. He already has another store in Windward Mall and one on the Big Island, with four more due in the next three months in the Kapolei Marketplace, Mililani Town Center and Waipahu Professional Center. His aim is to have 20 storefronts, and while I've seen restaurateurs fail by attempting to grow too fast, Craft takes a pragmatic approach to business, bootstrapping his way up by parlaying returns from one restaurant to finance his next. Franchising also provides an opportunity for mainland expansion.
I'D HAD A light lunch the first time I ate here, and was extremely hungry when I visited. Although chicken and fish options are on the menu, I wanted steak. Under my unspoken pact, in order to try a broad sampling of a restaurant's menu, I usually order something different from my dinner guest. But this time I didn't want to defer. Once you get the idea of a steak in people's heads, nothing else will do. So two of us ordered the 8-ounce steak plate. A 16-ounce plate is also available for $10, and both sizes include two scoops of rice, a lettuce salad and soft drink.
I was surprised when I opened the pressed-foam box. Expecting a filet, I had equipped myself with knife and fork, but as it happens, no knife is needed to eat this flavorful, perfectly medium-rare grilled tri-tip steak, already neatly thin-sliced by hand. Awww! It was like being a kid again, when my dad cut all the meat for five of us.
Five years of specialization has paid off, and Craft admits he didn't know what he was doing when he started. He was working security at Blue Tropix and "had no idea how to cook" when he decided to set up a barbecue one day, without any back-yard experience.
"Everything, the seasoning, it was terrible," he said. What's more, though he had steady business, he said the steaks continued to be terrible for about a year. But in experimenting with different cuts of meat, he homed in on the tri-tip, or lower sirloin, which is marbled throughout, delivering the prized fatty flavor of steak but without the visible fat that must be trimmed off, leading to waste.
"Nothing was as soft, with the right flavor," he said.
Practice definitely paid off. I guess it would cause storage problems but I wish they had a potato option. It's not very local of me, but I hate the mushiness of rice and steak together. I've hated the combo since I was a toddler critic, when my dad minced steak and mixed it with rice. I always refused to eat it, so dinner times involved much yelling at me.
Also on the menu is broiled chicken and fish (only opakapaka will do) for the same $6 price, with differentiation offered in the form of Korean barbecue, hibachi (Western barbecue), Thai peanut or mushroom sauces. Like the steak before it, the chicken is a work in progress. The no-skin chicken is tender inside but tends to be leathery on the outside due to broiling, and Craft is considering baking instead to avoid that.
The sauces are slathered on in the easiest, most efficient method possible. Plain broiled is the best to me, and you definitely do not want to put the heavy peanut-butter-consistency Thai peanut sauce on the fish. Expect Craft to work on these issues. "I eat my food all the time so I can tell what's wrong."
But at $6 per plate, diners probably won't complain too loudly.