Enjoying life in the Tropics


POSTED: Sunday, June 28, 2009

The economy might be down, but the Friday night crowd at Tropics Bar & Grill obviously didn't get that memo.

A mix of tourists and kamaaina vied for seats inside the dining room at the Hilton Hawaiian Village's newest restaurant, spilling over onto the outdoor patio and expanded bar.






        » Name: Tropics Bar & Grill

» Capacity: Seats more than 350 in its 15,700-square-foot indoor/outdoor space.


» Style: Casual


» Ambiance: Tropical modern with a retro island feel.


» Most popular menu items: Furikake and beer-battered fish and chips and the fresh-ground burgers.


» Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Nightly entertainment and a Friday night fireworks show.


» Information: 949-4321 or visit www.hiltonhawaiianvillage.com/dining


“;It's busy and it's just going to get better,”; said Ramfis Benigno, a waiter at Tropics. “;I know it sounds crazy, but on Friday night when we have the fireworks, you wouldn't think that there was anything wrong with the economy.

Originally planned in 2007 before the U.S. declared an economic recession, the restaurant's May 18 soft opening could not have come at a worse time for Hilton. But despite the drop in Waikiki visitor occupancy and spending, which was down 16.4 percent year to date, according to the latest estimates from the state Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism, Hilton has managed to buck the trend and hit its revenue targets.

“;In order to get financing, we had to produce a return on investment that showed we could pay it back within three to five years,”; said Brian Keys, director of food and beverage for the Hilton. “;The figure was quite daunting, but we've been hitting it from day one.”;

The trend in the hospitality business is to help offset renovation costs by raising prices. Hilton's decision to merge the former Tropics Showroom, most remembered for its run as a disco and venue for flamenco guitarist and singer Charo, and the Tropics Bar & Beach Cafe represented an $11 million, eight-month renovation. The company easily could have used its significant investment to justify price hikes, however, Hilton steered away from this model and opened with prices that were 25 percent below menu costs at the previous restaurant, Keys said. Hilton also gave kamaaina additional incentives to visit Tropics by offering free parking and a 15 percent discount, he said.

“;We knew that people were searching for value, and that's what we wanted to give them,”; Keys said.

Cheaper menu items featuring local produce, live entertainment, Friday night fireworks, an expanded bar with signature cocktails and seating that provides patrons an ocean view from nearly every seat is a recipe that has paid off, Keys said.

“;We knew that it would work if we put product first, people second and profits third,”; he said. “;And, having a perfect location didn't hurt, either. We're filling 1,200 orders per day.”;

The almost instant success of Tropics also has enabled Hilton to keep every village employee working, even though some of their jobs had been cut in a declining market that forced the closure of Hilton's Village Steak & Seafood in May of 2008 and the Golden Dragon in February of 2007.

“;Hilton sat down with the employees and promised us that none of us would lose our jobs,”; Benigno said. “;At the time, I was working full time at the Rainbow Lanai, but with the drop in business, we were worried. Transferring to Tropics was a great opportunity for me.”;

Benigno is just one of 60 employees Hilton brought in to work at Tropics, in addition to four managers, Keys said. And, Hilton is actively recruiting one more manager for Tropics' back-of-the-house operations, he said.

But others have benefited beyond Hilton. The restaurant opening boosted business for Hawaii's construction industry and created needed opportunities for the state's agricultural and small-business sector.

The project created more than 142 construction-related jobs, said Dan Jordan, principal of Honolulu Builders LLC, the project's contractor.

“;The project took around 40,000 man-hours to complete, which is equivalent to 20 people having a full-time job for one year,”; Jordan said. “;In reality, the work was spread across approximately 120 individual workers on-site (not including material suppliers).”;

Hilton's local food suppliers, such as Fresh Island Fish, Kona Sea Salt and Hamakua Mushrooms, also have benefited from the reopening, said Jeffrey Vigilla, the village's executive chef.

Vigilla, who grew up on a farm in Hilo, is making it his mission to use local ingredients in his menus and to endorse the products.

“;The diversity of Hawaii's agriculture is incredible,”; Vigilla said. “;From Kahua Ranch beef to Hamakua mushrooms, from Hawaiian vanilla (the only vanilla farmed in the United States) to Kona sea salt—the selection is so vast. This means we are providing our diners the farm-to-table freshness and intensity that only local products can offer.”;

Hilton is making sure that Tropics also supports local entertainers. Some of Hawaii's top artists, including Sean Na'auao, Piranha Brothers, Typical Hawaiians and Beach 5, perform live nightly.