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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 28, 2010

Simply Ono expands its delicious empire

By Robbie Dingeman

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Harris Sukita of Simply Ono lunchwagon fame prepares a take-out lunch plate of giant pork chops at the Simply Ono kitchen in Mäpunapuna.

BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Simply Ono

Co-owners: Harris Sukita and Cora Stevens

How long in business? September 1995

Number of employees: Nine

Describe your business: "We're the lunchwagon that sells steak and lobster, beef Wellington, rack of lamb, fresh fish. We've done ostrich! We don't want to be like anybody else."

Business tip: "You've got to have good food, good service, good price and good fun."

Big new thing: In January, the business opened its first storefront retail restaurant at the old 99 Ranch Market in Mapunapuna.

Fun fact? Their smallest catering event was a sushi bar set up at sunset at Kaka'ako Waterfront Park for a man who was proposing to his girlfriend. (She said yes, they're still married and have three kids. )

Web site: www.simplyono.com

99 Ranch Market hours:

9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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Simply Ono started 15 years ago as a lunchwagon on Kapi'olani Boulevard that quickly gained a loyal following for an eclectic menu that ranged from seared 'ahi and shoyu chicken to the occasional Beef Wellington.

Co-owners Harris Sukita and Cora Stevens estimate it cost them about $5,000 to start up a business that has grown to include a lunchwagon at the Fasi Municipal Building, two more lunchwagons at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa, and a new retail location at the old 99 Ranch Market in Māpunapuna, as well as catering.

"It was kind of slow in the beginning," Stevens said, but business picked up.

"It's a crazy uphill battle but we're survivors," Sukita added.

From the first days of running one wagon, the two have averaged 12-hour days that start about 6 a.m.

They stood out from the competition by offering customers more choices. For salad, customers can pick tossed greens, macaroni, potato, three-bean or okara; for rice, they can usually choose white, brown or garlic.

Sukita and Stevens built the business with the help of friends, suppliers and customers who became their friends. Some followed them for the 11 years they ran the operation from Hawaiian Electric Co. Now they are getting some federal stimulus help for a loan for a new commercial kitchen.

Sukita, 55, said the two started as business partners who used to work together at the Kahala Hilton until the hotel closed for renovations. Along the way, they've built their business, become a couple in their personal lives and acquired a duplex, house, five trucks, a warehouse and the new shop.

"This has been my dream job since I was in high school," Sukita admits. But he didn't get it started until he was 40. Instead, he worked at related jobs, learning the building blocks of his business: bartender, butcher, fish monger, waiter, baker.

A working knowledge of those disciplines helps keep costs down. "I'll go to the fish auction and buy my fish and cut out the middle man. We can sell our fish for $6.75," he said.

They'll buy a case of tomatoes in Chinatown for $10 instead of paying $25 to order from a produce agency. The cost-cutting helps keep lunch prices low and portions large.

A number of customers say they also show up for the personal service. "They call me the lunchwagon nazi. I want to make sure that people have fun," he said.

And people do remember the banter.

One loyal customer recalls her initial embarrassment when she took a long time to figure out her order and Sukita called out to the waiting crowd: "We'll be with you before dinner, gang — new customer!"

Both said the biggest challenge can be government regulation. The move to a new commercial kitchen partly comes out of federal grease trap requirements. And Sukita complains that illegal lunchwagons — he calls them "termites" — threaten tax-paying businesses like theirs that get all the permits and follow the law.

Still, they are always on the lookout for something different to serve, something special. Any tips for doing business. "You've got to love your work," he said.

Recently, they decided to make their justifiably famous bread pudding after Stevens talked about it to some of the customers at the new storefront. Normally, they stir it up in an industrial mixer, which broke the night they were planning to make it.

Not wanting to disappoint, they still prepared six pans. "We had to make it by hand," Sukita complains, but people still loved it. They recently tracked down a used mixer and hope to make the bread pudding again soon.

"It's been a struggle but it's been good," Sukita said.