Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Nina Kuna
“Hi! Try our prime-rib slider,” says the smiling, dark-eyed fellow working one of the food booths at the 2015 Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. Glancing at his nametag, I realize I’ve just been greeted by Lloyd Aoki, the chef in charge of all things culinary at ABC Stores on the Valley Isle. One of the largest and oldest family-owned companies in Hawai‘i, ABC is about to open Island Gourmet Markets in The Shops at Wailea. A high-end sister store to ABC, Island Gourmet began in Waikoloa on the Big Island, carrying fresh island produce, Hawai‘i-made products, and a full-service takeout deli. The Wailea venue will be Maui’s first — and part of Aoki’s purview.
Two months later, I’m sitting at a wrought-iron bistro table in the newly opened Island Gourmet Markets (Aoki’s Wailea “office”), learning more about the face behind the food. A graduate of the University of Hawai‘i’s business-management program, Aoki seems a humble, local soul; his demeanor is one of quiet respect. “I took six years to get my degree,” he says. “I was a full-time student and a full-time cook. Although my parents wanted to pay for my college, I felt I should pay for my own education.
“My first restaurant job was dishwashing at the Buccaneer, where Karen Keawehawai‘i performed. I was promoted to bussing tables, then up to cook. Later, I worked for three years as a lead cook at Monterey Bay Canners Seafood Restaurant in ‘Aiea.”
His baccalaureate degree opened new doors. He joined ABC as a manager trainee at the chain’s busiest Waikiki store, at the now-closed Waikiki 3 Theatre location. Three years later, he was assigned his own store, at the intersection of Kuhio and Kalakaua. He moved to Maui in 1988, managing ABC’s Kihei store just as the company was beginning to expand its food department. Aoki’s restaurant experience proved to be a blessing. Today, as area deli manager, he oversees food production for all of ABC’s Maui locations, including the four stores he helped open.
Given Aoki’s penchant for the restaurant industry, I ask him why he chose a business degree, instead. “I studied management so I could give myself more job options,” he tells me. “I didn’t want to get ‘stuck’ in the food industry.” Then he adds, “Food innovation is everywhere. It’s a great time to be in the food industry, whether you’re a chef, or in management. [At ABC and Island Gourmet Markets] we can provide the tastes of Hawai‘i to the visitor, plus the locals enjoy our diverse menu, too.
“I’m a lot more hands-on in the kitchen now, but management is still a large part of my job. It’s different from when I started. Today’s manager needs to be compassionate, understanding, and patient. It’s a new generation [of employees].” His advice for those who aspire to upper management: “Learn as much as you can. And also know that expectations in the food and hospitality industry are high. I worked every Christmas and New Year’s for thirty years. It’s life. With success come sacrifices. I enjoy my job and all the daily challenges that come with it.”
As I peruse the new Island Gourmet Markets menu, my eyes settle on the Sunday and Thursday lunch-dinner special for $12.99: prime-rib plate. Choices of rotisserie chicken and barbequed baby back ribs fill out the rest of the week. I also note barista services, breakfast offerings (e.g., avocado-BLT omelette) and a full deli menu complete with island-style plate lunches. I could be here for months, exploring the menu through tastings!
Island Gourmet Markets
The Shops at Wailea
3750 Wailea Alanui Drive, Wailea
808-874-5077 | IslandGourmetHawaii.com
Get Recipe: Prime Rib au Jus