Once-sleepy beach town transforms itself into a popular destination for both locals and visitors
October 26, 2012
By Jenna Blakely, General Assignment Reporter
Pacific Business News
Kailua continues to attract new restaurants and customers, bringing fame to the small town’s selection of mom-and-pop eateries, weekly farmers’ market and award-winning fine dining.
But it wasn’t always an epicenter for food.
Kailua resident Roger Morey, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association, said he has noticed more locally owned restaurants spring up within the past three to five years. He said Formaggio Wine Bar and Grill was the first to make a big impact on Kailua’s trendy food scene, and it has been a ripple effect ever since.
Morey credits Kaneohe Ranch Co., the Windward real estate and development company that has been renovating Kailua for the past 20 years.
“This company has made Kailua such a nice little town and a very attractive place for businesses,” he said.
For a small beach town — the 2010 U.S. Census listed the population at 38,635 — Kailua has managed to bring in Mainland chains such as Whole Foods, Executive Chef and, more recently, Target.
The town’s locally owned coffee shop, Morning Brew Cafe and Bistro, has been around to witness the growth. Owner Peter Anderson agreed that Kaneohe Ranch has helped attract more business.
“When we first moved into Kailua around 1995 it was a sleepy little town,” he said. “It wasn’t really until around 2000 that things really started to move and Kaneohe Ranch began to spruce the town up.”
The improved appearance has led to growth, which has significantly helped local businesses, Anderson said. Also, the popularity of Kailua Beach and President Barack Obama’s vacationing there have acted as unpaid advertising for businesses. Part of the growth has been an increase in the number of bed and breakfasts, attracting more visitors who eat out and shop.
“For many years, our customers were probably 85 percent local and 15 to 20 percent tourists,” Anderson said. “Now we have as much as 30 to 35 percent tourists.”
That growth has left some Kailua residents concerned about their town growing too big. They earned a victory of sorts in August when the Honolulu City Council banned vendors, including kayak rentals, from Kailua’s beaches. Merchants say the result has been a drop in visitors and customers.
“It’s definitely affected businesses like ourselves in the last few months — there’s a trickle-down effect,” Anderson said. “From a small-business standpoint, the cost of doing business increases every year and we can’t rely on just the locals alone — we need that extra boost from the tourists.”
The chain stores also are affecting the restaurant business. Anderson said Whole Foods, for example, has taken away some of his lunch business because of its appeal not only as a grocery store but also as a sit-down place to eat.
Overall, though, owners of locally owned restaurants say business is good.
Crepes No Ka Oi owners Kakay and Chris Tarvyd noted that Kailua is becoming a brunch spot.
“I have to admit a lot of people ask me why Kailua always has the best breakfast places,” Kakay Tarvyd said. “We have six or seven breakfast places in such a small town and they’re all doing really well.”
She said customers often drive to their restaurant, famous for its “ultimate breakfast crepe,” from Hawaii Kai and the North Shore. It’s Kailua’s laid-back feel that makes it a unique place worth driving to, she said.
“When you drive into Kailua, it gives people the feeling that this is how Hawaii should be,” she said. “No tall buildings, [but rather] mom-and-pop stores, plus one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.”
That atmosphere is what attracted The Grove owners to open in Kailua last year. Co-owner Chef Fred DeAngelo, well-known for his award-winning Ola restaurant at Turtle Bay Resort, said Kailua’s small-town feel perfectly resonated with The Grove’s family-oriented feel.
“Although I like the opportunity a larger location in the city would give you, with not only a crew but a guest space, my wife and I have come to find home in the smaller outside locations like the North Shore and Kailua,” he said.
Cactus, a Latin American bistro owned by Chef John Memering, also opened this past year in Kailua. He had been the chef at the nearby Kalapawai Cafe.
“Our restaurant brings something different, another dining option,” he said of Cactus. “I love going to Prima, Buzz’s, The Grove — we’ve got some solid contenders here and it makes it fun.”
Memering, DeAngelo and Kakay Tarvyd said they don’t view fellow restaurateurs as competition.
“We’re all unique and offering different things,” Tarvyd said, noting that providing more options for customers brings more exposure to the area.
Adding to the town’s food scene is Kailua’s Thursday night farmers’ market. Manager Kacey Robello said about 46 vendors show up each week to serve an average of 3,500 attendees. Among the attendees at last Thursday’s market were Kailua residents David Ruecker and Marie Kennedy, who said they enjoy the community spirit at the market as well as the wide array of dining-out options so close by.