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Thrill of the grill
A daughter follows in her dad's
Address: 91590 Farrington Highway in the Kapolei Shopping Center
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday
"I really thought that our five kids after seeing how hard we worked all these years, from 2 a.m. to 8 p.m., were wise enough not to get into the business," said Richard Tangonan, covering up his obvious pride for the baby of this celebrated food family.
However, after a stint as a journalist at the Honolulu Advertiser and later on the mainland, Tangonan-Putnam returned home to Hawaii and to her roots. Of the five Tangonan children, Tangonan-Putnam is the only one to follow in her parent's footsteps.
Upon returning home, Tangonan-Putnam found that despite her father's best advice, she couldn't resist buying Jurison's Westside Cafe from her uncle George Tanaka and converting it into her own brand, the Hapa Grill.
It's a story of history repeating itself. Tangonan-Putnam's parents also got their start as small-business owners when they bought their lunchwagon from Tanaka, who also owns Kunio restaurant in Waikele.
"I've really come full circle," Tangonan-Putnam said, adding that she remembers the days when she used to work alongside her parents preparing food for the lunchwagon out of her uncle's industrial kitchen on the back patio of his home in Ewa Beach.
Later, the Tangonans turned their garage into an industrial kitchen, which Tangonan-Putnam now utilizes to run her own business.
"I never thought I'd go into the food business," Tangonan-Putnam said. "I grew up seeing my Mom and Dad struggle and work so hard."
But after a recent stint covering the crime beat for the San Diego Union Tribune, Tangonan-Putnam said she was ready for a change.
"It became too depressing. I needed a change," Tangonan-Putnam said, adding that the opportunity to buy her uncle's business was the excuse she needed to return to her native Hawaii.
The decision to become a restaurateur took Tangonan-Putnam out of the frying pan and into the fire as she began the daunting task of becoming a small-business owner in Hawaii.
Tangonan-Putnam is now responsible for a staff of 30 employees, including her parents and her brother Scott and sister-in-law Eunice Tangonan, who keep the books for her. While the odds of succeeding in a small business are tough, Tangonan-Putnam's family has her back.
Their influence is seen in every facet of the operations at Hapa Grill from the menu items, which feature the teriyaki recipe that made Sassy Kassy Lunchwagon legendary, and Ellen Tangonan's lumpia and famous homemade macadamia nut chocolate brownies, to the powerful work ethic that Tangonan-Putnam inherited from her parents.
"It's such hard work, but she's a fighter," Tangonan said of his daughter. "You can knock her down a couple of times, but she always gets up waiting for the next punch."
Tangonan-Putnam said she learned to be strong from her parents, who woke up in the wee hours of the morning each day to work their lunchwagon.
"Luckily, I don't have to do that," she said, but added that running a full-service restaurant brings other headaches.
"There are more people to worry about," Tangonan-Putnam said. "There's also more paperwork."
There are similarities between the two Tangonan businesses, though. On any given day, the Hapa Grill is filled with former Sassy Kassy Lunchwagon customers.
"They make up a good part of our business," Tangonan-Putnam said. "My Dad's teriyaki and the specials we offer like his stew and meatloaf attract quite a crowd."