Baldwin Nekomoto gives his niece, Jacie Ige, 4, a hug. The Ige family gathers every Thursday evening at Kazuko Ige's home in Aiea.

Dining in

Four of the 5 Ige children
have heated up separate
careers -- all in catering

By Dave Segal

It's Thursday night and the five adult Ige children -- along with their extended families -- are milling around the food table at their 81-year-old mother's house in Aiea.

There's more than enough food for the 18 or so family members present for their weekly visit. Besides obligatory pupus like poke, sashimi and raw crab, on any given night there can be entrees such as prime rib, oxtail stew or mahi tempura. Of course, there's always beer for the grownups and juice, soda and milk for the kids.

That there is so much food is hardly a surprise, though, since four of the five adult Ige kids run three separate catering businesses.

These regular weekly gatherings at their mother's house have happened for at least the last 20 years. No one can remember exactly how long ago the get-togethers started, but one thing's for sure: The family that caters together, stays together.

"The main thing is they're happy to come," said Kazuko Ige, the matriarch of the family. "I used to prepare all the foods, but now since the children have their own business, it's anything they want to bring. We always end up with too many dishes."

The close-knit group of caterers got their start in the family garage. In the mid-1970s, Kazuko lost her lease at Yasu's Food Shop on School Street in Kalihi and the Iges' father, Shinyu, a heavy equipment mechanic at Hawaiian Dredging, built Kazuko what was at the time her dream kitchen in the converted garage. A lunchwagon and catering service that she started while at Yasu's began to take off and she enlisted all the Ige kids to help out. At one point, there were three businesses operating out of that one garage kitchen as the Ige kids branched out in their own directions.

In 1989, though, the Health Department stepped in with an eviction notice. Even though the department had approved the converted kitchen a decade earlier, a complaint from a neighbor about increased activity in the residential district threatened to bring the businesses to a halt. Instead, the eviction proved to be a springboard to three successful businesses.

An Ige family gathering at the home of Kazuko Ige in Aiea. Counterclockwise starting from the lower left: Ron Ige holding his son Ronson, 6; Alvin Ige holding his son Robbie, 8; Charlene Nekomoto; Glenn Ige holding his daughter Jacie, 4; Kazuko Ige; Debbie Ige; Jodi Ige, 15; Ben Ige; Ken Ige; Kristine Woodin, 14; Ana Ige; Jessica Ige, 14; Baldwin Nekomoto and Sharon Ige.

"At first we were devastated," said Ron Ige, who at 46 is the third oldest of the five children. "But, now that I look back, that was the best thing that ever happened to our family. We grew into three thriving kitchens all overlooked by mom. Today, mom goes from kitchen to kitchen making sure we are upholding the standard she set."

Kazuko got her start in the food business running a saimin stand with her four sisters in Waipahu in the 1940s. She gained experience with plate lunches while working in a lunchwagon in Kalihi in the 1950s. She then got schooled in the catering business while working for her cousin, Masa Uejo, at Masa's Cafeteria in Mapunapuna in the 1960s. Kazuko went out on her own in 1969 at the age of 48 when her husband bought her Yasu's Food Shop.

Today, it's the kids who are immersed in food operations.

Ron Ige, who owns Ige's Lunchwagon & Catering in Aiea, serves several hundred federal workers daily through his lunchwagon near Pearl Harbor, as well as customers who walk up to his takeout window at his kitchen in Harbor Center in Aiea. He also caters events, including a lot of funerals.

"We specialize in plate lunches every single day -- brown rice, tossed salad and any kind of plate lunch you can think of we make," Ron said.

While he won't classify himself as a good cook, he does admit he's learned from his mistakes.

"I was trained by my mother," he said. "After you screw up enough times, you start to get it a little bit. I've screwed up a lot of pots of beef stew before. After you do it all the time, you learn not to screw up. You adjust everything to taste."

Glenn Ige, the second oldest at 51, operates KLC Restaurant & Catering out of Halawa Valley. During the weekdays, he serves breakfast and lunch out of his kitchen, along with providing a takeout window. He also offers catering on the weekdays and weekends, with most of his business coming from funerals. His specialties are Chinese chicken salad, fried saimin, shoyu pork, sushi, and sweet and sour pig's feet.

KLC, which stands for Keiki Lunch Co., was started by his late wife, Lori, in 1988 to deliver lunches to preschools and little schools without cafeterias. That school-delivery part of the company's business eventually went away.

However, just as their newly added catering service was starting to take off 4 1/2 years ago, Lori died giving birth to the couple's third child.

"We continued on," Glenn said. "God blessed me with a lot of good workers so we could keep the business going."

Glenn, who's also thankful for the family support, said there's no competition between the siblings for business.

Ron Ige, left, Kazuko Ige, Glenn Ige and Alvin Ige posed for a picture during a weekly family gathering in Aiea. Of the five Ige children, four are in the catering business.

"We're a close-knit family, and anytime someone needs help, there's someone there to help us out in the business as well as in our personal lives," Glenn said. "If someone is closed, we may get the job. And if we can't do it, we'll pass on the work. Or, if we run out of something, we can get it from someone else.

"I think the three businesses work just like one but we're different. That's the good part about it."

Alvin Ige, 45, and his wife, Analiza, own Masa's Cafeteria, which they bought from Alvin's uncle, Masa, in 1990. The cafeteria serves breakfast and lunch during the weekdays and on the weekends is converted to a 275-person-capacity banquet hall that can accommodate wedding receptions, graduations, birthday parties and retirement celebrations. In addition, Alvin and his sister, Debbie Ige, run Ige's Catering Service.

"In a way we're lucky," Alvin said. "We do a lot of funeral catering. That's probably half of our business, if not more, for the catering side."

Alvin, who is the head cook for the catering operation, said his specialties are shoyu pork; nishime, a Japanese vegetable that includes carrots, bamboo shoots and konbu (seaweed tied in knots); and andagi, which are Okinawan doughnuts.

The oldest sibling, Charlene Nekomoto, 52, is the only one not involved in the catering business. She's the head librarian at Iliahi Elementary School in Wahiawa. She taught for 18 years before going back to school to get a master's degree and becoming a librarian.

"When my mother started out (on her own in 1969) I was a sophomore at UH and she had a little okazuya on School Street called Yasu's," Charlene said. "So I went to classes in the morning and helped her with the lunch crowd and then went back to classes again.

"I had already started school when she started getting more and more into catering. That's when I realized I'm the lazy one. It's hard to work seven days a week and I had always wanted to go into teaching."

As busy as everyone's work schedule is, they still make time for the family on Thursday nights. Birthdays are celebrated on that night as well.

"I enjoy it," Glenn said. "We have a few beers and talk story with my brothers about golf. I look forward to Thursday night because I get to see my cousins once a week."

In many respects, it's like having Thanksgiving 52 weeks a year.

"It's chaotic and relaxing," Charlene said. "The guys are on the patio. The ladies are around the dining room, the teen-agers are in front of the TV and the little ones are all over the place."

It's a scene that most mothers would relish and Kazuko couldn't be happier.

"Thursday night is a happy night," Kazuko said. "I think it's wonderful they all get along fine. It's really an accomplishment what they've done."

It's a far cry now from those days when the kids would help Kazuko in her converted garage kitchen. But she couldn't have cooked up a better recipe.

"Cooking was not my favorite thing to do," she admits. "But to me, it was the only way to get all my children together."

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