Erika Engle

Bigway bids a fond
farewell to friends
and french fries

Business at Bigway Burgers is bittersweet because the 42-year-old local favorite feeding spot will shut down at 11 p.m. Sunday.

"It would be easier if business was going downhill and it was time to get out, but business has been increasing ever since 9-11. We've completely recovered, which a lot of businesses can't say," said owner Tony Choi.

Other reasons led to the decision.

Bigway's lease at 211 Hiwi Place with Tamura Enterprises Inc., parent company of neighboring Tamura's Wahiawa supermarket, expired last month. That, coupled with the Choi family matriarch's advancing age and Tony Choi's uncle's failing health made for the right timing to sell the business.

"We hold the key to (Tamura's) being on the corner. We decided to give them an opportunity," Choi said.

The dollar value of the opportunity was not disclosed.

"We do have food service in the supermarket now, so it's just a matter of moving it into that (restaurant) area," said Chairman Herbert Tamura.

Son and company President Glenn Tamura oversees day-to-day operations of the supermarket, Tamura's Fine Wine & Liquors in Kaimuki and the new Tamura's Wholesale Outlet on Kilani Avenue. The latter opened Oct. 22 and has no membership requirement.

Glenn will also oversee the restaurant, to be called Tamura's Kitchen. Between the supermarket and the restaurant the 16 Bigway employees will be offered jobs.

"That's what was really of concern to me," Choi said.

Tamura's has absorbed employees before, retaining about 50 workers in the buyout of Big-Way Supermarket in 1995.

"Of course it's always traumatic when a new owner takes over, but they know us because we're right next door," Herbert said.

Glenn plans a soft-opening for Tamura's Kitchen, "probably next weekend."

In the meantime the Bigway faithful come for their usual fix of favorites and find out the news.

One woman comes from Kailua every week for the saimin, and an Ewa Beach man depends on Bigway for his plate lunches.

Given 42 years of customer- and menu-development, favorites are plentiful, but pressed for one best seller, Choi singled out french fries.

"We sell roughly 25 cases of french fries a week." At 30 pounds per case that's 750 pounds of fries every seven days. "We have a secret seasoning that we sprinkle on our french fries," said Choi.

The blend, other recipes and the Bigway Burger name are not part of the transaction.

Choi has no immediate plans to set up shop elsewhere though the restaurant has been a part of his life since he was a high school freshman in 1961.

Setting up a restaurant was not his father's lifelong dream.

"It was kind of an accident," Choi said.

He accidentally opened up a burger joint?

Choi's father Smith, known as "Smitty," "fell into all his jobs," Choi said.

Smitty earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Southern California but was summoned home to help in his father's dry cleaning business.

"He asked my father to give him a hand until he got back on his feet and it wound up being 20-some-odd years."

An expansion of Honolulu Airport was going to send a runway right through the company's main processing plant.

Smitty then got an opportunity to develop the Big-Way Supermarket and run its restaurant. "Although my family owned both the land and the supermarket, we leased back the restaurant and that's what we've been doing," Choi said.

The eatery had to be moved for another state project -- widening of Kamehameha Highway.

Hiwi Place disappeared with the widening, but Bigway retained its street address in spite of its rebuilt location at the corner of Kamehameha Highway and Kilani Avenue.

Bigway has employed countless high schoolers in their first jobs and many are regular visitors, which Choi finds gratifying.

"The hardest part is closing this after so many years and so many employees."

"We have so many mixed emotions about this closing."

Bigway will be scooping rice, flipping burgers and seasoning fries from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily until the lights are turned off one last time.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Bulletin. Call 529-4302, fax 529-4750 or write to Erika Engle, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210, Honolulu, HI 96813. She can also be reached at:


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