Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
On a typical day at Ige’s Lunch Wagon and Catering at Harbor Center in ‘Aiea, patrons will encounter a sumptuous feast for their culinary senses when placing or picking up their orders. Observing the bustling activity in the kitchen can be infectious. The intoxicating aroma of comfort food favorites such as Pork Tofu, Fresh Corned Beef with Cabbage, Boneless Chicken Hekka, Baked Spaghetti, Hamburger Steak, Hawaiian Plate, Lau Lau, Chicken Katsu, and Catch of the Day may conjure a culinary conundrum for those unfamiliar with navigating a menu chock-full of more mouthwatering favorites than you’d find on an automotive dealership’s “options” list.
The Quest for Gastronomical Excellence
Ige’s Lunch Wagon and Catering started in the 1970s with Kazuko Ige cooking memorable meals in the kitchen behind their home in ‘Aiea, according to her son, Ron, owner of Ige’s Lunch Wagon and Catering. “My mom started Ige’s,” Ron explained. “I was attending college and I graduated, and I didn’t have a job, and the kitchen was at our house, so I would go back there and help her. And one day she wanted to go on vacation with my dad, so I told her to go, and I can run the kitchen, and I did it for about a week. And they came back, and I’ve been doing this ever since.”
Prior to Kazuko’s experience in the food service business in the family’s kitchen, Ron noted that his mother and her four sisters Elsie, Sumie, Mary, and Helen, owned a small restaurant in Waipahu in the 1960s selling saimin, fish soup and barbecue sticks. He added that his mother also worked in a lunch wagon in Kalihi for Mrs. Haruko Gushi as well as for her cousin Masa Uejo, at Masa’s Cafeteria in Mapunapuna.
“In 1969, my late dad, Shinyu, bought Mom her first kitchen in Kalihi named Yasu’s Food Shop,” said Ron. “Over the years, she also operated Ige’s Lunch Wagon at Bobby’s Union in ‘Aiea. With a reputation of generous portions of tasty dishes at a fair price, her popularity expanded into Ige’s Catering Service.”
Getting A New Lease on Life
According to Ron, after losing the lease for Yasu’s in the mid-1970s, that’s when his dad built Kazuko her own kitchen (which was legal at the time) in the garage behind their home in ‘Aiea. “For over a decade the business kept growing to a point where all us kids were helping out in the family business,” said Ron. “Mom taught us all how to cook. The lunch wagon was parked at our home, so we could drive it out. My mom made lunch wagon food. We all lived at home and my mom was aging, so we all got involved in the kitchen. When we got an eviction notice in 1989, we were devastated. That’s when we decided to make our own kitchens.”
Ron noted that brother Glenn operates Ige’s Halawa, brother Alvin, his wife, Anna, and Ron’s sister, Debbie, operate Ige’s Catering Service/Masa’s Cafeteria in Mapunapuna, and Ron operates Ige’s Lunch Wagon and Catering in ‘Aiea. His sister Charlene, also helps with the business and his daughter, Jessica, is the catering sales consultant. As for feedback about the food, Ron quipped that everybody’s happy with it. “We’re just very busy here at Ige’s Kitchen and feel blessed for it,” he emphasized. “Every single day we have several specials and we’re open only four days a week. For me, a typical day starts at 2 a.m. My son (Ronson) comes in at 3 a.m. And the workers come in at 6 a.m. And done by 2:30 p.m. I leave about 8:30 a.m. and go shopping or whatever.”
The Silver Lining in a Gray Cloud
Ron lamented that during the pandemic, the catering side of the business was down to zero. He then added an extra day of operation for the kitchen side, which was Tuesday through Saturday. “People were hungry during the pandemic, so the kitchen side was busy,” said Ron. “Our employees are hard workers. Family members have definitely made a difference in making Ige’s a success. They’re all doing a great job.”
Ron elaborated: “We run our kitchen like a lunch wagon, and my mom did it that way. We start early, cook all the food so it’s ready, and we’re not cooking all day. We open only from 9:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. four days a week and after that we’re closed. We’re going to keep Ige’s Lunch Wagon and Catering going for as long as we can. It has been a successful business and it’s always been there.”
All in the ‘Ohana
Jessica explained: “I started working with our family when I was young. Right after high school, my dad asked if I wanted to work in the business and I agreed. As for Ronson, he started working with our family in the last couple of years, but he’s always been into cooking. He was attending college, but now he’s in the business. A typical day for me begins with cooking everything for that day. The girls roll all the sushi and we do all of the cold food like the mac salad, and the guys do most of the cooking. Ronson is one of the main chefs now, and he does a lot of cooking for the catering and the takeout window.”
She elaborated: “The biggest challenge is working with family, and we’ve all had to learn to be better communicators. It’s tough working for a family business, and it takes a toll on us. If the business is not doing well, the family feels it. Before the pandemic we were old school, and we’ve been open for over 35 years, and everything has been word of mouth in terms of getting the business exposure. During the pandemic we took the time to modernize everything such as marketing. We got really active on social media. That attracted a lot of new business. We’re still doing that now. It enabled us to grow and adapt.”
According to Jessica, family members have definitely made a difference in terms of the success of Ige’s.
“Food service is a challenging profession,” Jessica emphasized. “Catering is a good business to be in,” she added. “For people who have the passion for this business, I would say go for it, but come up with a good business plan and marketing strategy, and be able to adapt,” she said. “Everything is constantly changing. The world is completely different than it was two to three years ago. One of the things we did to adapt was include family packs that can feed four to six people. That really worked for us. We also started selling our pickled onions and teriyaki sauce. I have a lot of pride in the family business, and when we do well, that makes me happy, seeing the results of all the work we put in. A lot of our food is tailored for the older crowd, so I want to revamp a lot of things, and appeal to younger patrons as well. The Shoyu Pork is popular on the catering side, and on the takeout side I really like our Beef Stew.”
Something Old is New Again
As he was not content with his foray into the lunch wagon/catering business, Ron also had a 10-year run with Ige’s Restaurant & 19th Puka in ‘Aiea (closed in 2014), showcasing a winning formula that resonated with many patrons: Ige’s familiar comfort food wedded with live music (“Flashback Friday”) provided by popular bands such as the King Pins, Royal Kunia Street Band, Shining Star, H2O, Wasabi, Pocket and many more. “Flashback Friday started with Robert Shinoda booking bands at Ige’s Restaurant & 19th Puka,” recalled Ron. “I met him through a mutual friend, and Robert suggested we start up Flashback Friday.”
Ron noted: “We started with The Kingpins who played every Friday. I booked bands on Saturday. It was challenging to successfully operate a restaurant business like ours, because during the week, it was slow. Weekends were busy. You can’t run a successful business only on weekends. And lots of people don’t drink during the week. The restaurant business is challenging. I met a lot of good people and became familiar with lots of good bands who played at Ige’s Restaurant & 19th Puka. The bands made the restaurant what is was. But when they raised the lease I decided to get out after 10 years. My dream of building a 19th Puka took a lot of hard work by some very special people in my life to make it happen.”
Sobering Words of Advice
“I like to go swimming at Ala Moana, along with bike riding and gym time,” said Ron. “I’m not really retired, because I’m still working. When you’re young, that’s the time to try to start a business. You’re not going to know if it will be successful, unless you try. If I had a chance to have done things differently, I would not have been in this business. I would have been in the real estate business,” Ron mused, with a wry chuckle.
George Furukawa is a freelance writer based in Pearl City. He has been a professional journalist for more than 40 years and has worked in various editorial positions for daily, weekly and monthly publications. His articles have appeared in local as well as national publications including the Honolulu Star-Bulletin (now the Star-Advertiser), Building Industry Digest, Engineering News Record, Porthole, Nature Conservancy, Amateur Chef, Credit Union Times, Fresh Cut and Corporate & Incentive Travel.