A honey-seller uses a Statue of Liberty replica to attract customers to his stall at the Hilo farmer's market. Photo by Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin

Restaurants roll the dice during festival week

By Nadine Kam

If hula is the biggest story of the Merrie Monarch Festival, the second biggest story is food.

Where it comes from is not the usual sources. This makes planning rough for restaurateurs, who count on business that doesn't always come.

At Royal Siam restaurant - which serves Thai food better than any on Oahu - business hours were changed to accommodate parade watchers Saturday morning, but by noon, only four people were in the restaurant.

At Empire Cafe, Daniel Wadahara was wondering if he'd get to use the four cases of pork butts he had purchased in anticipation of a Merrie Monarch crowd.

"This time of year it's fun and nerve-wracking because we really don't know what to expect. Last year this place was packed. People were standing in line. This year it's been quiet. Maybe they're keeping them at the hotels with all the craft fairs."

It's because visitors don't know what to expect either, that they come prepared, bringing their own food.

Kumu Hula Mae Loebenstein's Ka Pa Hula 'O Kauanoe 'O Wa'ahila dined on beef stew their first night in Hilo, and were looking forward to friends and family bringing in more food from Honolulu as they arrived.

"We always bring in breakfast food, and we designate one night Hawaiian night," said dancer Shirley Tesoro. "Before, we had to cook, but we ended up eating stuff made by people who didn't even know how to cook."

This year, she said, the dancers were relieved of cooking duties to allow them to relax. Perhaps this paid off. The halau won three prizes this year.

On the sixth floor of the Hawaii Naniloa Hotel, a makeshift buffet was set up in the hall, where Paleka Mattos and Kunewa Mook's Halau 'O Kamuela came to chow on shoyu chicken, rice, veggies and dessert. Other menus would feature hamburger steak and tuna sandwiches, always with vegetables and dessert, all brought in from Honolulu.

It's not that any of the halau want to snub the restaurants. There just isn't much time to run out and get a meal. Rehearsals for Hula Halau 'O Kamuela were running from 9 a.m. to about 3 p.m., which left only a couple of hours for a quick meal and shower before getting on stage.

And many restaurants would not have anywhere to put entourages of 20-plus. It was a challenge at Don's Grill, with a seating capacity of 57 indoors, to seat 60 people from a Japan halau. Luckily, they had arrived at 10:30 a.m., before the the peak noon lunch hour, when the restaurant is packed with regular customers. The halau helped out by ordering simple sandwiches.

If the restaurants were wondering where the customers were, they need only have looked around the corner from the Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium, where the Ka Uhane Hemolele O Ka Malamalama Church was holding its fund-raiser Wednesday through Saturday, selling Hawaiian plates for $6 a pop, and many side items as well.

By 3 p.m. most days, they had sold 800 plate lunches. In Mooheau Park the day of the parade, the civic group Civitan had 1,000 barbecue chickens to sell at $6 apiece, and Louis Pavao had no doubts they would sell them all, as the group has for 28 of the 33 years of the festival.

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