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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 28, 2010

Breakfast is Cinnamon's business

By Robbie Dingeman

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Cinnamon's recently introduced its red velvet pancakes. Breakfast is served daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and eggs Benedict is the signature dish.

ROBBIE DINGEMAN | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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Employees: 45, including part-timers

How long in business: 25 years. Opened March 1, 1985.

Describe your business: "Serving fresh wholesome food ó comfort food ó aimed at family dining."

Core strategy: "Our philosophy has always been to make sure the customer is always taken care of," said co-owner Puna Nam.

Business survival tip: Be sensitive to the customers. At Cinnamon's, several versions of the signature eggs Benedict dish have come at the suggestion of customers, including the veggie and the fish.

Fun fact: On a busy weekend day, Cinnamon's will make and serve three batches of hollandaise sauce, made with 80 egg yolks each.

Next big thing: Red velvet pancakes are the latest hit but Carsie Green is working on a lilikoi chiffon pancake.

Find them at: 315 Uluniu St, Kailua (261-8724), and www.cinnamonsrestaurant.com.

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Cinnamon's Family Restaurant built its business on breakfast.

And, 25 years later, the owners still strive to improve on the family dining/comfort food experience in Kailua town one plate of eggs Benedict at a time.

In 1985, the restaurant opened with owners Norman "Puna" Nam and his wife, Bonnie "Cricket" Nam, with Carsie Green in charge of the kitchen. The three found they had diverse skills that meshed well.

"The hollandaise was an uphill battle but it was worth it," Nam said.

One of the things that vexed them in the beginning was that the previous restaurant served a chicken-based packaged hollandaise mix that was consistent, easy to fix and bore little resemblance to fresh-from-scratch hollandaise.

But they kept refining the sauce and the regular customers came around.

After the traditional Canadian bacon, egg, turkey, hollandaise, English muffin took hold, they began experimenting with others: a fresh tomato/spinach, a mahimahi, kalua pig, lox and crabcake, the latest creation and now among the most popular.

The family restaurant serves breakfast daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and lunch every day but Sunday, when it's all breakfast.

"The Benedict is our primary signature item," Nam said. "We're always looking for different combinations."

The owners struggle with increased operating costs, from shipping to employee insurance. With the help of their staff and customers, business has been good, even during the latest economic downturn.

Green notes that at least 14 nearby restaurants have closed around them over the past quarter-century and their business has changed with the times.

Cinnamon's served dinner years ago but slowly cut back, from seven nights a week to five to three, eliminating it entirely three years ago.

Six months ago, at the prodding of regulars, they decided to reopen for dinner on the first Saturday night of each month and it's become a full-house event.

But breakfast is still the big thing. While Cinnamon's won rave reviews earlier for carrot pancakes with sour cream sauce, and guava chiffon pancakes, "the red velvet pancake is our latest claim to fame," Nam said.

But Green isn't slacking off on his quest for the next great pancake. He's getting close on a lilikoi chiffon.

Then he plans a pancake to mimic a flavor memory for kama'āina from the old Alexander Young Hotel. "I want to do a lemon crunch," Green said, but he's still mulling the crunch part.

Over the years, the restaurant built a steady loyal following. Waitress Debbie Conn now serves the second and third generation of some families.

"Eighty percent of them know what they want before they sit down," she said.

After all these years, she knows most by face, many by name and often knows what they'll order before they say it.

Cinnamon's has also won mention in foodie news, from various "best of" contests to a visit from TV food star Rachael Ray two summers ago.

And although the mainstay of the business remains the loyal following, the waitresses notice that new business comes in when people are taking pictures of their breakfast, posting them on Facebook or Yelp and half an hour later their friends are showing up to order the same thing.

Nam credits Green with conjuring up food that's satisfying and creative without being too outlandish. "He experiments with comfort food."

And Green admits that's true. "If I taste something yummy, I'll come back and make it and experiment with it."

Green has dumped dishes that didn't turn out, though he could only remember one dish this week, a yogurt chicken he tried and threw away.

And Nam and Green attribute much of the success with people to Nam's wife. "Cricket has a good insight with human relations, both the customers and the employees. That's why we've got so many people who've been here so long."

Green mainly handles the cooking. And Puna Nam does ordering, the books, the back-of-the house business. He jokes: "Between the three of us, we make up one whole talented manager or owner."

When they first opened, the Nams were the owners and they had hired Green away from Bea's Drive-in near Kaimukī High School.

But within a couple of years, they brought him in as the third owner/partner. "We felt he was invaluable and a good asset and we could see him being with us through this whole thing," Nam said.

As part of the 25th-year celebration, one of the waitresses wrote the names of the workers, along with the year they started, on the door. Three were there from the start, and 16 started in 2001 or earlier.

As for the next generation, both of the Nams' sons have worked in and out of the business since they were in high school but they're still not sure if one or both will settle into the business for the long haul.

And that's fine with the current owners: "We expect to continue indefinitely," Nam said. "We're at a point now where life is good. Our efforts and hard work have paid off."