By George Furukawa
Special to The Hawaii Herald
Tip Top Motel and Tip Top Cafe (two separate names), located near the Līhu‘e Airport on Kaua‘i, have been popular destinations for visitors as well as residents for 107 years. The landmark business offers rooms in its motel as well as many local comfort food favorites in its world-famous cafe.
The Roots of a Generational Tree
The business started in November 1916, when first generation Denjiro Ota opened Tip Top Cafe & Bakery.
“At that time, he was the cook for Lihue Plantation manager, Mr. Wilcox and his family,” said fourth-generation Jonathan Ota, currently operating Tip Top Cafe and Tip Top Motel. “My father (third-generation Owen Ota) knew the Kaua‘i Store manager as Mr. Cannon, but the one who helped my great grandfather open Tip Top Cafe & Bakery worked at the Kaua‘i Store long before Mr. Cannon became the store manager. We don’t know who that was. The bakery made bread and delivered it island-wide. My great grandfather managed several bakers and delivery drivers.”
Second-generation Mitchell Ota, Denjiro’s son, took over the business in 1925. Mitchell introduced fresh pastries, pies and other baked goods that were to become popular treats. One, is the famous, made-from-scratch pancake recipe, which is used today and proudly served in the cafe.
“Another is the macadamia nut cookie, which was the first macnut cookie made in Hawai‘i,” said Ota. “My grandfather always used the phrase in labeling and advertising (“the original macadamia nut cookie”). He experimented with various nuts, but most had too much oil, so he settled with macadamia nuts.”
Mitchell moved the business a half-mile in 1965 to its present location and built a cafe, bakery, 34-room motel and bar. As the island grew, more people on business or vacation visited Kaua‘i and Tip Top became a popular destination of choice.
Mitchell passed away at 85 in 1989 and his grandson, Jonathan, moved home to Kaua‘i from O‘ahu to take over the family business. Owen, Jonathan’s father, has been with the business for more than 50 years. In 2016, Tip Top Motel, Cafe, & Bakery celebrated their 100th year business milestone.
The Generational Tree Branches Out
“I’m sure we’re not the only such business (now a motel and cafe) in the U.S., but I do know that there are not many businesses that even reach the second generation, which makes us unique,” said Ota. “Only 13 percent reach the third generation, and only 3 percent reach the fourth generation. We reached the fourth generation, which is very rare.”
Tip Top Motel comprises 14 units above Tip Top Cafe as well as a separate 20-unit building on the same property. “It’s a multi-use building, which I think back in the day, I don’t think there were many such buildings,” said Ota. “Now, when planning, businesses want to go with multi-use, wherein you can have housing on the top and on the bottom a cafe, for example.”
Weathering a Storm of Uncertainty
In 2020, Governor David Ige ordered a statewide lockdown to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 global pandemic. “The first thing we did was go with takeout orders only, no dining in, which meant less contact,” said Ota. “Then we went to full online ordering and payment, and we did curbside pickup too. So customers were driving up and we were loading their orders or passing orders to them, through their vehicle windows. That was very successful.”
As the six-foot distancing was enacted, Ota opened the cafe, which allowed the business only 45 percent of its original seating. Ota opted to go with a hybrid arrangement wherein the cafe continued to operate, as well as the curbside service. This hybrid arrangement enabled the business to continue operating during the pandemic.
When Ota reopened the cafe, it went to 100 percent seating again. However, Ota had to end the curbside service, because it was causing problems with traffic outside the cafe. Ota didn’t have enough staff to serve in the cafe, while also servicing curbside. He credits the curbside service for keeping the cafe busy during the lockdown.
Ota explained that during the lockdown, Tip Top Motel was closed. “Then after a couple of months we spaced out the available rooms, which allowed us to use about 40 percent of our rooms,” he said. “No one was traveling anyway, so it wasn’t busy. Slowly as the six-foot distancing requirement ended, travelers returned and our motel picked up again.”
The business prevailed through the pandemic, because Ota pivoted to keep it operating, as well as the employees working. Ota noted that since restrictions were lifted, tourists as well as business people have returned to Kaua‘i.
“We have now reached pre-pandemic levels regarding the business,” Ota said. “People are back at work. The only problems now, are that we don’t have enough staff, and of course, the increasing cost of food.”
A Trip Down Memory Lane
Originally, Ota’s main goal was to reach 100 years in business. Now that Tip Top is at 107 years as of 2023, he does not have another landmark to achieve. Tip Top is just hoping to continue serving its loyal customers comprised of locals, as well as those from abroad, including Europe and Asia. Ota wants to continue the Kaua‘i family-style experience and vibe. He emphasized that being in operation for 107 years has attracted generations of customers.
“We’ve had comments from customers letting us know that their parents brought them to our cafe when they were children,” said Ota. “Now, they’re bringing their children to our cafe, and it’s really nice to hear that generations of customers have been patronizing us.”
Ota noted that much of Tip Top’s legacy is based on customers’ fond memories of dining there. He reasoned that customers love Kaua‘i so they return so their children enjoy the Tip Top experience as well.
The Torch Has Been Passed
“When you look at multi-generational businesses, one thing that you need to have the business succeed, is a deep sense of obligation to carry on the work and to build on what previous generations have contributed to and valued,” said Ota.
That’s why Ota returned to Kaua‘i. He was working in Honolulu, but knowing how hard his father and grandfather worked to bring the business to the next generation, Ota felt the need to help his family. For him, it’s been a “privilege and an honor, to have a hand in continuing the legacy.”
So, is there any secret formula for the success of the business?
“We’re just a family business and it’s not like we have something so special,” Ota said. “I think what we want customers to realize when they dine at Tip Top, is that we’re family-owned and family-run for 107 years. I have lots of fond memories about Tip Top, but for me, I spent much of my childhood at Tip Top with my parents. I felt like I was raised by the waitresses, cooks, bakers, housekeeping staff, and of course, my grandparents were running the business at that time. So, I just had a great time running around and being raised at Tip Top. All of the employees here became like my ‘ohana. They all helped raise me and take care of me.”
Taking It to the Top
For Ota, another very special memory is when the business held its 100th year celebration. “We brought all our families from Honolulu, and employees and friends, and we had a big celebration in the cafe,” said Ota. “That was really special time, when we got everyone together, to celebrate reaching 100 years.”
Ota noted that it’s not just about the customers, but also the generations of employees who have worked there. Parents worked at the cafe for 30 years, and now their children are working at the cafe for another 25 to 30 years.
“That’s really nice that we can not only provide a job for them, but they come and help us and they want their kids to help us too,’ said Ota. “A lot of our employees have been with us for more than 30 years. One of them made 40 years. We’ve had very low turnover. We’ve been very lucky.”
Ota emphasized that the business has many repeat customers.
“I think when they come to Tip Top first of all, they have good memories of coming when they were kids, our service is consistent, and it’s a friendly family atmosphere that brings them back,” said Ota. “It’s not too fancy, it’s not too stuffy. The waitresses treat them really well, and they feel the local vibe of our cafe and the local comfort food we serve. It goes beyond the food and service. It’s the total Tip Top experience.”
On the Sunny Side of the Street
Ota explained that the cafe serves a myriad of familiar favorites such as hamburger steak and eggs and bacon. “They want to eat what the locals eat,” said Ota. “We have customers who eat breakfast here four times a week. We have customers who eat here almost every day. It’s simple and it’s what they want. If you make it too fancy, they can only come once a week or once a month.”
The cafe’s bestseller is oxtail soup, Chinese version. Ota’s grandfather tweaked it a little, so it’s a specialty. The cafe’s pancakes are popular as well, Ota’s grandfather made the recipe. The cafe’s loco moco is also a big seller.
In the next five to 10 years, the goal of the cafe is to continue serving loyal customers and give them what they want — food that they are familiar with and that they love.
“We also want to make sure our employees have a stable place where they can work and support their families,” said Ota. “That part of the business is very important to us. We’ve been successful because our hard-working employees. The employees we have now are excellent and unbelievable. We are very appreciative of our employees. I’ve been here for 32 years, so I’ve put a big part of myself into this business.”
Top Top Motel and Tip Top Cafe are located in Līhu‘e on Kaua‘i at 1373 Akahi St. You can find the business online at tiptop-motel.com. Phone number is 808-245-2333.