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POSTED: Monday, October 12, 2009

A downturn in the economy appears to have spurred an upturn in the number of Oahu lunch wagons — and competition as thick as sticky rice.

“;There's been a huge surge in requests and inquiries in lunch wagons,”; said Peter Oshiro, a state health official overseeing permit reviews.

State health officials said there are no figures comparing the numbers from one year to the next.

But Oshiro said he knows the interest in opening lunch wagons has grown in the poor economy.

Lunch wagon operator Joel Cabais said some people who have lost their jobs might feel lunch wagons are a cheap way to start a business — and customers are looking for good deals.

Cabais operates two You Hungry? lunch wagons with help from his wife, Jeanelle, brother Donovan Dureg and Donovan's wife, Maybellene.

With prices in the general range of $4 to $7, lunch wagons typically rely on volume to make a profit — some selling more than 50 lunches a day.

“;It's boom or bust,”; Oshiro said. “;Your business has to have either exceptional food or an exceptional price.”;

Owners say an old lunch wagon could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. Besides the cost of food and operating a van, the lunch wagon owner has to pay for a $200 plan review for a new lunch wagon vehicle and a permit of $50 to $100 every two years.

State officials said there are 323 lunch wagons that have been issued health permits on Oahu.

Each lunch wagon must undergo a review and submit a menu, and has to operate in conjunction with a food service that has a certified kitchen.

State officials said the reviews are usually completed within 48 hours of the application, because the health sanitation branch places a high priority on new establishment openings.

State officials said due to staffing shortages, inspectors are reviewing private food establishments about once every 2 1/2 years.

At Campbell Industrial Park there are about 10 to 15 lunch wagons, prompting one proprietor, Alapati Manutai, to move to Mapunapuna near Mokumoa and Ahua streets, closer to his Moanalua home. His hours of operation are from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

The father of three college students, Manutai said he works as a part-time driver at Roberts Hawaii, but tourism work has been slow so he's focused on improving and expanding his lunch operation. He has gone into a new partnership with a lunch wagon near Alu Like Inc. at Keawe and Pohukaina streets.

His plate lunches include the usual fare of barbecue chicken, roast pork and garlic chicken, but he also offers grilled steak with his own special marinated sauce.

“;People seem to like it,”; he said. “;I've got regular customers.”;