Food Gurus HQ recently sat down with Murphy’s Bar & Grill owner, Don Murphy, to find out what makes this Chinatown bar and restaurant icon tick. We found a charming industry professional, passionate about his business and the people he works with and serves.
FGHQ – Don, where did you grow up and spend time before arriving here in Hawaii?
Don – I grew up in Oklahoma and enjoyed a pretty happy childhood being around my family and friends. I attended Central State College before heading off to Florida, and later lived for a time in both Oregon and California.
FGHQ – So is that where you got into the food and restaurant business?
Don – No, I worked in San Francisco for a guy by the name of Dick Barry who had an investment management firm with a portfolio of small properties such as strip malls, apartments and office buildings. The last of his investments I worked was actually a house-boat rental operation on Shasta Lake, in Northern California, where I spent five fun years really getting my feet wet in the real estate market!
FGHQ – So was it business that first brought you to Hawaii?
DON – Yes it was. Dick and I would travel to Hawaii quite regularly to work on investment properties he had purchased here. We’re both fun-loving guys and we liked to venture away from the tried and true of Waikiki and discover ‘new’ places to enjoy a meal and a pint.
FGHQ – I think I can see where this is heading, Don. Tell us more.
Don – Dick and I loved the character and atmosphere in Chinatown with all its historic buildings and proximity to the port. Wherever I am in the world, I love the color and vibrancy you seem to find in towns or cities built on the water. We both really enjoyed exploring this particular neighborhood.
FGHQ – So what made you finally decide to settle here?
Don – Great people who became great friends. When Dick and I would come to Honolulu on business, one of our favorite spots for a meal was Matteos, in Chinatown which just happened to be next door to a great little pub called Jameson’s. People in both places were so relaxed and friendly, and the service was outstanding.
FGHQ – So was this when you thought you might like to own a pub or restaurant yourself?
Don – I’m not sure exactly when that idea was first born but in 1986 Dick bought the side of a block on Merchant Street between Bethel and Nu’uanu, from a gentleman by the name of Dick Gushman who would later become a dear friend. When Dick (Barry) called to tell me
what he’d done he said, why don’t we take over Jameson’s next door? I had never been in business myself so initially I was a little hesitant, and neither of us knew anything about the F & B business, at least not from the behind the bar perspective. But we were both fun-loving and up for an adventure, so I said why not?
FGHQ – But you didn’t stop at buying just Jameson’s, right?
Don – With Jameson’s I had about 1500 square feet but I fell in love with the Matteo’s building, and with my wife who was a waitress there at the time, so I bought the owner out and created Murphy’s Bar & Grill.
FGHQ – And are you still the owner today, Don?
Don – Yes, with my wife Marion, we are sole owners and we’re still both very happily hands-on in the business.
FGHQ – What is it that you enjoy most about the business?
Don – As you know, to succeed in this industry requires a lot of hard work, long hours and a constant attention to delivering the best possible product and service but what we both love the most are the diverse and interesting people – those we work with, and those we serve. In both cases, many are just like members of the family and they make those long days a real joy for us.
FGHQ – It’s nonetheless a demanding industry, so what would you say are the greatest challenges for you?
Don – Without a doubt, it’s the constant upward pressure on the cost of almost every aspect of doing business, from goods and insurance right through to labor. The very tight labor market is a very real challenge for every business in Hawaii, so we work hard to provide an environment where our team feel happy, valued and rewarded, so that they want to stay with us. I must say, we have been very lucky. We have some of the most dedicated, hard-working and fun people you could possibly wish for.
FGHQ – Do you have any other concerns with regard to the industry?
Don – Yes I do, and it’s for the wonderful people who work front-of-house in our bars and restaurants. The extremely high cost of running a business today is forcing many in the industry to look for savings by replacing people with technology. I find that abhorrent and concerning. Most guests come into a restaurant or bar as much for the food and entertainment, as for the human interaction. I see a frightening trend in some establishments toward fewer servers, and the guests ordering from a tablet or other electronic device, just so the business can remain profitable and competitive. In many ways I’m pleased to say that at Murphy’s we’re still technology dinosaurs.
FGHQ – If I’m not mistaken, Murphy’s is not your only hospitality business interest?
Don – That’s true. We have a partnership with two friends in Ferguson’s Irish Pub in the beautiful Dillingham Transportation Building. We bought it eight years ago from John Ferguson’s wife after her husband Fergie’s passing. Interestingly enough, Fergie, had been one of the partners I’d bought out to establish Murphy’s, and over the years he had become one of my dearest friends. I feel like I’m now also perpetuating his dream.
FGHQ – So what’s ahead for you now?
Don – In the immediate, future Marion and I are looking forward to our favorite time of the year – St. Patrick’s Day. It’s the Irish version of the Rio Carnival but on a global scale. We love the great people who come out to celebrate and enjoy themselves, the singing and laughter and the general atmosphere. We’ll be hosting around 10,000 people at Murphy’s throughout that day.
FGHQ – It seems that you really love what you do. Is that a fair comment?
Don – You are spot on! I believe it comes from having had some very special people in my life – mentors and role models like my parents, my older brother and my business partner, and I especially love working with my wife and the dedicated back of house team who do such an amazing job. I love them all and they have given me a solid platform from which to live and fully enjoy my life.
FGHQ – Finally before I let you get back to work, Don. Do you have a bucket list and what would be your advice to someone starting out in this industry today?
Don – Funny you should ask about a bucket list because I would simply love to spend more time with my wife just exploring and enjoying these beautiful islands we call home, and perhaps also to motor through the San Juan Islands.
As far as a word of advice, it would be to find your niche in this business, beat it to death and don’t try to be everything!