Industry Spotlight: Party time at our house(s)

Operators tend to get very busy during the holiday season with buyouts or private room bookings for company parties — but what about us? The Hawai‘i Restaurant Association thought we’d ask some members what they do for their employees at this time of year.

Burgers on Bishop, owned and operated by Liz Hata-Watanabe, is new, but already bustling with holiday parties, catering orders for office parties and creation of custom holiday gift baskets for corporate clientele.

Hata-Watanabe is planning a potluck and Secret Santa gifting for her restaurant employees and neighboring vendors in Topa Financial Center. “I went around to each one of them to invite them to a holiday get-together. I’m happy to host,” she said, adding that her restaurant also has karaoke equipment. Her neighbors all are small businesses with maybe two to four employees. “I love the people here,” she said. She can run to a neighbor for an extra tomato or onion. The florist brought in festive holiday decorations for Hata-Watanabe to display. (Mrs. Park, the florist, has a rather famous son who established another Burgers on Bishop neighbor: Bar Leather Apron.) There are other family ties among the building’s retail tenants contributing to Hata-Watanabe’s desire to host a party for her neighbors. “It’s completely like family,” she said.

A story of a different stripe came from another Downtown denizen. “We don’t do one while we’re busy,” said Don Murphy, owner and president of 31-year-old Murphy’s Bar & Grill and part-owner of Ferguson’s Pub. “We just bonus everybody out, which they prefer,” he said. One benefit of the holiday bonus payment sans party is that “nobody gets in trouble” by being over-served. It’s not that he’s not a party-thrower or a giver. Murphy is well-known in the industry for his support of University of Hawai‘i Athletics as well as many nonprofit and community organizations, by hosting large fundraising events.

Multi-unit, multi-concept operator Hide Sakurai, president and CEO of Diamond Dining International Corp., stages two parties for his 180-plus employees. One is for his restaurants, Shokudo Japanese; Búho Cocina y Cantina; Bread & Butter— and one is for Cheers Wedding.

“For the restaurant business, we need to stay open, we don’t want to close entirely at nighttime,” he said. The restaurants will close a little early for such occasions, as on a recent Sunday when Diamond Dining bought out SKY Waikiki after 10 p.m. for its annual holiday and employee recognition party.

It’s a cost-saving barter deal, so when SKY and sister-restaurant Top of Waikiki stage an employee party in February, Sakurai will reciprocate by hosting the other operator’s employees at Búho. “We take care of each other,” he said.

The holiday party for the wedding business is more low-key, in deference to the general demographic and life-stages of the staff, he said. “It will be a smaller-scale dinner at a restaurant, maybe a steakhouse,” he said. The employees want to have a nice meal and not stay out too late, as they have families.

Having restaurants on multiple islands and one on the mainland makes a single, unified holiday party impractical if not impossible for DK Restaurants. “Each of our general managers can go ahead and select a date for their party,” said Ivy Nagayama, managing partner and director of operations for O‘ahu’s d.k Steak House and Vino, as well as Sansei Seafood Restaurant & Sushi Bar on O‘ahu, Maui, Hawai‘i island and in Seattle.

“The GMs normally pick a night that’s not a volume night and normally do it after the holidays, like in January or February, because we make money during the holidays,” she said. “We don’t close down the restaurants to have holiday parties because we’re all restaurant people with dinner houses. We do close a little earlier, say, at 9 p.m. so we can get out by 10.”

In-house parties can be a challenge. “We have to be very mindful that we don’t serve beyond the hours allowed on the restaurants’ liquor licenses and we limit how much they can drink to two drinks.” So, general managers can stage the parties off-site to mark the holidays and recognize front-of-house and back-of-house employees.

“We would cater some, but if we go to another venue, we ask if we can bring our own sushi,” Nagayama said. While the holiday parties each have a budget, “a lot of the food vendors, they always give us food donations, like the fish vendors would donate ahi and another might donate prime rib.” It’s the vendors’ way of thanking the company for its business throughout the year and it helps DK Restaurants thank its employees for their hard work.

“The great thing … is that DK gets to know every employee by name (there are close to 700 employees). He remembers the names of the managers, the chefs, he’ll go introduce himself to the line employees. That contributes to the intimacy of each restaurant having its own holiday party and hopefully that translates to how we treat our guests. That is the kind of culture that DK wants for his restaurants.”


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