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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Grilled-steak wagons spring up all over

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Customer Yumiko Yagi, left, selects two soft drinks that are included with her steak lunches from the Blazin' Steaks cart operated by Richard Craft at the Ward Gateway Center, near the Marukai store. Craft, right, says the one-item menu reduces overhead.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Ono Hawaiian Steak employee Mel Takahashi, left, served up a steak plate to customer Sandy Kamp at the South Beretania Street Foodland yesterday. Steak is the latest wrinkle in Island plate lunches.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Pop-up tents and plywood carts are springing up in parking lots across O'ahu as a handful of small businesses are turning to ready-to-eat, "steak plate" meals.

Three of the most well-known, new businesses Steak Out, Blazin' Steaks and Ono Hawaiian Steak won't disclose their earnings but say business is so good that they're thinking of continuing their expansion plans.

The popularity of their idea lies in its simplicity and price: A mound of freshly grilled, sliced steak slathered over two scoops of rice, accompanied by a green salad and soda all for $6.50.

"All we serve is grilled steaks," said Richard Craft, 32, who owns three Blazin' Steak carts that he built by hand, which boast signs reading, "Steaks $6."

"It's just one item," Craft said. "Simple. Low overhead. ... Some plate-lunch wagons offer 10 items, but if it's a slow day, they go home with nine items that didn't sell."

Unlike plate-lunch wagons, owners like Craft said their simplified menu eliminates the long, early-morning hours needed to prepare multiple dishes at the beginning of each workday.

In a land of plate lunches overflowing with mochiko chicken, misoyaki butterfish and pork adobo, the steak plate lunch has spread quickly since first appearing on the scene three years ago.

Now they're being sold every day from Kapolei to Kaimuki and in Foodland and Times Super Market parking lots.

Sandy Kamp stood over a row of shopping carts in the Beretania Street Foodland parking lot yesterday and dug a plastic fork into $6.50 worth of freshly grilled steak, rice and salad.

"I've got to have it," said Kamp, an assistant manager at a Waikiki condominium, who was craving a steak plate yesterday. "It's good and it's cheap."

The idea of parking-lot-grilled steaks didn't begin as a money-maker.

Three years ago, Times Super Market officials were looking for a way to promote their Sterling Silver top-sirloin USDA choice beef when Candy Berry, who was working at the Kailua store, said, "they have to taste it."

After her daughter's soccer match, Berry set up a tent, a grill and started passing out free samples. Berry even offered to grill steaks on the spot for customers who walked out of the store with Times' Sterling Silver top sirloin.

"Then the customers said, 'Where's the plate lunch?' " Berry said. "It just grew into this gigantic cook-out."

Times' personnel director, Clifford Hayashi, and his friend, Jay Cabais, had been running a side business grilling chicken in various Times' parking lots when Times tapped them to grill steak instead, Berry said.

Times officials crunched the numbers and came up with a $6.25 price for 8 ounces of steak, two scoops rice, tossed salad and a can of soda.

Hayashi and Cabais set up their operation on Saturdays in the Kane'ohe Times parking lot and on Wednesdays in the McCully Times parking lot.

"That's when the demand started to grow," Berry said. "We would have customers coming all the way over from Kane'ohe to McCully on Wednesdays because they couldn't get enough."

Cabais later broke off and founded Steak Out and set up tents in the parking lots of Comp USA and Ward Gateway Center, mauka of Ward Warehouse.

Two years ago, Craft was the owner of two tanning salons when he bit into his first Steak Out plate. Craft readily admits that he duplicated the formula when he set up his first steak-plate operation in the parking lot of the Blue Tropix night club, near his former Kapi'olani Boulevard tanning salon.

Now, with little more than a $5,000 investment, Craft has taken over the old Ward Gateway Center spot, oversees a second steak-plate cart operation in the 'ewa parking lot across from the Neal Blaisdell Center and owns a third, larger cart that's driven around Kapolei, 'Ewa Beach and Campbell Industrial park every day.

The state Health Department requires that "mobile establishments" such as lunch wagons prepare their food in a facility that has a permit from the Health Department, said Peter Oshiro, plan review and standards office supervisor for the department's Sanitation Branch.

"Once they get that approval," Oshiro said, "they can operate anytime, any place."

Craft cut a deal with the Kapolei Boston's North End Pizza to rent kitchen space to store and prepare his food.

Cabais has since set up a canopy on Pearl Harbor Naval Base and has branched out into salmon and chicken.

But his $6.50 price for 7 ounces of chuck-eye steak flavored with Cabais' secret recipe is still the main attraction.

And now Cabais is working on a deal to set up an even larger Steak Out operation in Ma-punapuna.

"I just have to keep the price low," he said.

While Craft's Blazin' Steaks took over Cabais' old Ward Gateway Center slot, Cabais' son, Joel, and Joel's half brother, Donovan Dureg, bought out Cabais' old Times' operation in October 2004 and assumed his father's recipe and pricing formula.

"People think my dad gave it to me. No way," Joel said. "Family is family, but business is business. He'll cut you no slack."

Last year, they moved Ono Hawaiian Steak over to Foodland, which was looking for a way to pump up its "ready-to-eat-meals" selection, Foodland spokeswoman Sheryl Toda said. Foodland and Ono Hawaiian Steak share in the proceeds of every steak plate sold, Toda said.

Even though Ono Hawaiian Steak has since expanded into shrimp, Toda said the $6.50 steak meal continues to bring in business.

"A lot of our customers like to eat steak and it's reasonably priced," Toda said. "Now we are planning to add more locations and expand our hours."

Cabais and Dureg have since invested another $10,000 in new grills, coolers and tents which keep wearing out in the wind, sun and rain and have seen sales take off.

On a good day at the Hawai'i Kai Foodland, they'll sell 900 plates; 1,200 at the 'Ewa Beach store.

"We set set sales goals for the company, and we've already hit our second-year goal in one year," Cabais said.

Sales are so good that Ono Hawaiian Steak pays its seven employees $10 to $11 per hour and offers medical, dental, vision and life-insurance coverage, plus plenty of overtime, Cabais said.

"We don't want high turnover," Cabais said, "and we don't have to worry about scheduling lots of part-time people."

Like the food he sells, Cabais said, his business model follows a similar, streamlined philosophy.

"We just try to keep it as simple as possible," he said.

Reach Dan Nakaso at dnakaso@honoluluadvertiser.com.