Mainland Americans tend to believe that Aloha is simply the Hawaiian way of saying hello and good-bye, but for Island natives it is a way of life; a spirit of welcome and connectiveness.
“Our brand spreads the spirit of Aloha through an immersive combination of vibrant colors, playful humor and engaging visuals,” said Christine Jan, director of marketing for 102-unit Ono Hawaiian BBQ. “At every customer touchpoint, whether it is through social media, tailored messaging or captivating graphics, our goal is to give consumers an experience of paradise.”
Ono Hawaiian BBQ, ranked No. 190 in Technomic’s Top 500 Chain Restaurant Report, increased sales 9.6% and added three locations in 2022. For Jan, that slow and steady growth indicates a rising interest in Hawaiian culture and all the flavors the cuisine has to offer.
“With each grand opening, we see growing crowds and excitement for Hawaiian food and culture,” she said.
The chain has concentrated expansion in California and Arizona, which both boast significant populations of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. That trend will continue into this year and next.
“We are hyper focused on expanding into more cities and counties throughout California and Arizona,” said Jan. “Our growth strategy for the next year is to open outside of Maricopa County in Arizona and more locations in the San Fernando Valley. We aim to open 12 to 15 stores in the next couple of years, and currently have over 30 locations in the pipeline with many of the new locations planned as drive-thrus.”
The big three
Ono ranks the highest of the Hawaiian plate lunch concepts—a menu category popularized by Asian laborers in the 19th century who came over to work in Hawaii’s pineapple and sugar plantations. The portable, complete meals include two scoops of white rice, an Asian-style protein like chicken katsu, kalua pork or kalbi short ribs and a scoop of macaroni salad and steamed vegetables. Ono blends Japanese, Hawaiian, American and Korean flavors into its menu to reflect Hawaii’s melting pot of cuisines.
The meal-in-one plate lunch is travel-friendly and offers good value—top consumer demands.
Prices range from $12.49 to $16.49, with mini meals going for $10.49. The food is travel-friendly and a good value, two attributes that fit into current consumer demands.
L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, calls itself the “original” plate lunch chain and boasts that it serves “a side of Aloha with every meal.” The chain is close behind Ono in 2022 growth, with a ranking of 192 in the Top 500, but has twice as many locations both in Hawaii and the mainland. Aficionados in 12 states can grab a plate lunch, including the expected locales (California, Arizona, Nevada and Utah) as well as the unexpected (North Carolina, New York, Texas and Tennessee.)
Hawaiian Bros Island Grill ranks down at No. 313, but it’s the newest of the big three (founded in 2018) and the fastest growing, expanding unit count from nine in 2020 to 37 two years later, opening in states as diverse as Arkansas, Kansas, New York, Illinois and Texas. Sales also shot up quickly, increasing 77.6% year over year.
Aloha spirit is the concept’s “secret sauce,” its website proclaims, and Hawaiian Bros’ foundation is built on the principles of honor, inclusion and gratitude. The menu is also based on the plate lunch, and this global, well priced-comfort food seems to be catching on with consumers in many parts of the U.S. and powering growth.
All three also serve Spam Musubi, a sushi roll-style Hawaiian specialty made with rice and Spam wrapped nori. This has yet to catch on with non-natives on the mainland, but another Hawaiian export—poke—has.
Poke stakes a claim
Poke bowl concepts are a growing category in the fast-casual space, but the idea actually originated in the Hawaiian Islands. To preserve their catch, fisherman would rub cubes of fish with salt and seaweed. Japanese and Chinese immigrants added soy sauce and sesame oil and poke shops started serving poke made with ahi, salmon, shrimp and other local seafood in disposable cups to eat as a snack on the go.
Now it’s caught on as part of the fast-casual build-your-own bowl trend. Although Pokeworks is the only poke bowl brand that has made it into the Top 500 (No. 477) several others are inching their way up in Technomic’s ranking. The 26-unit Island Fin Poke (No. 937) has a name that evokes poke’s roots.
CEO and founder Mark Setterington infused the chain with the core values of Ohana (family) and a beachy vibe from its start in 2016. “Ohana is about hospitality,” he said. “We pay tribute to Hawaiian culture without cannibalizing it. And we don’t try to copy or steal the concept of authentic Hawaiian poke,” said Setterington.
Island Fin has a fast-casual, build-it-yourself set-up but with a full-service experience, he added. Servers welcome customers and collect trash. Customers create bowls from a choice of three bases (spring mix and white or brown rice) and eight proteins, including ahi tuna, spicy tuna, salmon, octopus and shrimp. For seafood shunners, there’s chicken, tofu and even Spam. Customers then choose mix-ins like edamame, corn, sweet onions, jalapenos and the signature OG Veggies—jalapenos and sweet onions marinated in soy sauce, olive oil, sesame oil and rice vinegar.
That marinade is also what makes up OG Sauce, one of 12 house-made sauces that guests mix into their bowl creations and can then complete with a choice of more than 20 toppings and five finishing sauces. Five curated bowls are available for those who can’t decide or want speedier service.
A new location opening in Venice, Fla. will be built with a poke pickup lane for more convenient ordering and service. It joins eight more restaurants opening this year, said Setterington. “Our busiest location is in Worcester, Mass.,” he said.
Other poke chains are higher up in the Top 500 (see chart below) but they’re missing that Hawaiian Ohana vibe. They seem to be aiming more for a Chipotle-style fast-casual model than a connection to the 50th state.