A proven recipe for success,By Betty Shimabukuro
JUST luck, Seiju Ifuku says. Luck that he returned from World War II uninjured. Luck that the Army taught him to cook. Luck that he and his wife, Ayako, were able to open a restaurant in Kapahulu they named Rainbow, and that it earned them a tiny pot of gold. Luck that his sons-in-law were willing to take over when the time came, so the drive-in could stay in the family.
"Nothing to write about," Ifuku says several times in the course of an interview.
But we all know luck had nothing to do with it.
Attribute this success to endless hours of hard work, good sense about the drive-in business -- and brains.
In the end the Ifukus were lucky with their sons-in-law. But that's because, in the midst of all that hard work, they nurtured two daughters who grew up with a respect for the family business, even if they didn't want to run it themselves.
"You gotta be lucky," Ifuku insists. "You gotta have timing.
"And guts," he allows. "Little bit guts."
"And Mama," his daughter, Sherie Gusukuma, says. "You need Mama, too."
Opening day was Oct. 2, 1961, when Rainbow Drive-In served its first plate lunch. John Horita and Ed Kuba were juniors that year at Kaimuki High School. The drive-in was a touchstone in evenings spent cruising and goofing around -- their words.
"We come here, we eat," Horita recalls. "Go play basketball, come back and eat, go play billiards."
"They used to close about 10:30," Kuba says. "We used to come at 10:29 and say, 'You have any food you want to give away?' "
The Ifukus aren't much for nostalgia. Their daughter says they don't even have old pictures of the drive-in. But not so their following from Kaimuki's class of 1962. Kuba gathered the gang for a party Saturday night in the small dining space at Rainbow Drive-In.
They decorated with tablecloths and candlesticks, hung balloons and streamers in Kaimuki's green and gold, played tapes of music of the era. The idea was to celebrate the 38th year of their adulthood, the 39th year of the drive-in. Not exactly round numbers, but the time seemed right to draw some attention to a place that loomed so large in their youth, Kuba says.
"We grew up with this place."
Rainbow Drive-In was actually restaurant No. 3 for the Ifukus. They'd had a small place in Chinatown -- the Welcome Inn on Maunakea Street -- then traded up to the Kalakaua Drive-In at the corner of Kalakaua Avenue and Ala Moana Boulevard, now the site of the Waikiki Sizzler.
The Kalakaua was a car-hop place like many others in the area, but Ifuku beefed up the standard sandwich menu with plate lunches, at the time the sole purview of lunchwagons. The first plates sold for less than 50 cents, he recalls, and they were heaped high with protein and carbs.
"Now these young ones ask for vegetables, but before, Hawaii people only want plenty rice and macaroni salad. They don't care about looks."
Kalakaua Drive-In was a hotspot through the '50s, but after 11 years, lease rents got too high, Ifuku says, and he moved out. He put up the modest building on Kapahulu Avenue, started cooking up plate lunches, and that's the way it's been for nearly four decades, under the Rainbow.
The menu hasn't changed much -- the last time a new item was added was two years ago, roast pork -- although prices now hover around $5 a plate.
"My motto is 'Give plenty and quick service,' " Ifuku says.
In a day, Rainbow Drive-In sells 900 to 1,200 plate lunches and 300 to 500 sandwiches. Do the math -- that's a gross in the neighborhood of $2 million a year.
"I'm lucky man," Ifuku repeats. "Ever since I open for business, I never lose money."
Ifuku -- his friends call him George -- is 85 now. His wife and partner is 76. ("No ask age," he says. "We young.") He's been in semi-retirement for 20 years but remains company president. She retired several years after him.
They built the business together, but Ayako Ifuku remains firmly in the background. She won't leave home to be interviewed or pose for any photographs, leaving that to her husband, who doesn't say much, either.
"She's nice lady," he does say, about his wife.
They've been married more than 60 years, since before Ifuku went to Europe with the 100th Battalion. They raised two girls and a boy in a home in Manoa, and despite working from 8 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, Sherie Gusukuma remembers her mother managed to be home when school got out, and they were always together for dinner.
The restaurant closed only on Christmas Day and for two days at New Year's. The children all worked at the drive-in -- and decided it wasn't the life for them.
Sherie became a librarian; older sister Betsy became a nurse. Their brother moved to California.
And so it was that when Ifuku decided to get out of the kitchen, he turned to Betsy's husband, Harvey Iwamura, who gave up his job as a computer analyst to take over. About five years ago, Sherie's husband, Jim Gusukuma, quit his management job with United Airlines and the sons-in-law became co-managers of the drive-in.
It wasn't a hard decision, Jim Gusukuma says. "I felt I could come back to the family business and contribute ... it allows Rainbow Drive-In as a family entity to continue."
He and Iwamura have 28 employees (Ifuku started in 1961 with eight). Their wives, by the way, are back in the restaurant, keeping the books and filling other behind-the-scenes roles.
They maintain Ifuku's philosophy: Keep the menu small and simple, so food turns over quickly and nothing sits. "Make it cheap, sell a lot, rely on volume," Jim Gusukuma says.
One thing the family patriarch does speak of readily is the Ifuku Family Foundation, his way of spreading around his "luck." The foundation awarded $26,000 in grants to community groups last year and offers scholarships of $500 to $1,000 to culinary students. (No strings attached. "We don't expect them to work at a drive-in," Sherie Gusukuma says.)
Several years ago, the Ifukus gave the first $5,000 to the Okinawan Cultural Center project, and that's when '62 Kaimuki grad Kuba re-entered their lives.
Kuba, the center's fund-raising chairman at the time, says the Ifuku donation was the seed money that attracted the $10 million that eventually built the center.
"They believed," Kuba says. "They shared our dream."
The Okinawan connection is something Ifuku takes seriously. Although he was born in Hawaii, he returned to his parents' homeland and lived there until age 16.
One of his hobbies is collecting antiques, and at one point, he says, he had a collection of 68 pieces of old Okinawan pottery. All of it was donated to a museum in Okinawa.
Ifuku's other hobby takes him to the ocean every day. For years he has gone to Queen's Surf every morning for a 30-minute swim. It keeps him trim. "You make money, all right. But you gotta be healthy. Enjoy every day."
This is a half-portion of what is normally cooked up at Rainbow Drive-In, the smallest amount the cooks felt comfortable issuing without retesting the recipe.
If you reduce it further, be sure to check the flavorings.
SHOYU CHICKEN12 pounds chicken thighs
2-1/2 cups sugar
3-1/4 cups soy sauce
3/4 to 1 cup vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
6 dashes Worcestershire sauce
3-4 cloves garlic, crushed
3-5 inches ginger, crushed
Wash and drain chicken.
Combine sauce ingredients.
Combine chicken and sauce in a pot. Bring to a boil and cook until chicken is tender, 20-30 minutes. Skim sauce. Thicken with flour or cornstarch. Bring to a boil again and serve. Serves 12.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 970 calories, 55 g total fat, 16 g saturated fat, 300 mg cholesterol, greater than 3,000 mg sodium.*
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