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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 15, 2007

Columbia Inn closes suddenly

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Palolo residents Nicole Nguyen, 8, and her grandmother, Jeanette Shimabuku, arrived yesterday afternoon to find the restaurant closed.

Photos by REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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This notice was on the door of the closed Columbia Inn yesterday afternoon.

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KAIMUKI Kent Ghirard, 88, of Diamond Head, couldn't believe that his favorite restaurant, Columbia Inn on Wai'alae Avenue, had suddenly closed.

He had just had lunch there Sunday, when the landmark eatery served its last meal.

"What a shock," he said, as he read the notice taped to the door of the restaurant yesterday. "It was like a family restaurant. I knew all the help by name. I always felt welcome here. It was like my second home."

Nearly all who stopped by the restaurant yesterday especially longtime regulars were stunned to learn of the sudden closure.

Many took a moment to read the message from restaurant owners Thanh and Tri Nguyen to patrons that explained their decision to shut down the Kaimuki location after nearly 20 years.

"We deeply regret any inconvenience this may have caused you, our loyal customers many of whom have become like family and we have grown to care about you," the note read. "We will miss you all and bid you a fond aloha kakou."

More than 50 employees lost their jobs with the closure.

In 2001, the Nguyen brothers bought the Kaimuki Columbia Inn, the last in a chain of restaurants created by the kama'aina Kaneshiro family more than 60 years ago.

They leased the restaurant's name from Alan Casupang, who bought the franchise rights from his former employer, Kyotaru Hawaii, which had owned the Kyotaru and Columbia Inn restaurants in Hawai'i since 1986.

Casupang said he was not part of the decision to close the restaurant. He said the owners, who operate as NuSwiss LLC, still have about 14 years left on their lease with the Kaimuki Shopping Center.

"They can't just terminate (the lease)," said Casupang, who helped the Nguyens open the Kaimuki restaurant. "They can't. But they've done it, so I don't know what's next."

The Nguyens also own and operate at least two eateries at Ala Moana Center's Makai Market, Casupang said. They could not be reached for comment.

Columbia Inn was known for its friendly service and local-style menu that featured hamburger steak, oxtail soup, vegetable tempura and its popular Broke Da Mout beef stew.

There was a steady stream of people walking up to the restaurant yesterday afternoon. Many didn't realize it had closed and tugged at the doors. Most stopped to read the note and walked away shaking their heads.

"Oh, no, it's closed forever," said one woman, walking away.

"Wow, I didn't even know it was closed," said another.

Lopaka Wakinekona, a 35-year-old mason from Wai'anae, ate breakfast at Columbia Inn at least twice a week.

He started dining here about two years ago, stopping by before dropping off his 16-year-old son at Saint Louis School and 5-year-old daughter at Sacred Hearts Academy. He often ordered the banana short stack.

"It's a real family restaurant," said Wakinekona, who went to check out the menu at the restaurant yesterday not knowing it was closed. "You know everyone's name, everyone greets you with a smile. It's like you never left home."

Lloyd and Margaret-Helen Wood were devastated by the news that their favorite restaurant had closed. The couple went on their first date for coffee there.

"I'm going to miss people calling me by my first name. That was such a treasure," said Margaret-Helen Wood, an art teacher at Sacred Hearts Academy. "It's such a loss. It's a loss to everyone, not just the people who work there."

Casupang hopes someone else will want to continue the brand that had become so familiar to the community, a restaurant that had become a landmark in Kaimuki.

"The food was good, the portions were large, and the prices were reasonable. That's a good formula for any restaurant," Casupang said. "I hope we can carry on this local style of service and food again."

Reach Catherine E. Toth at ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.