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Cover Story

IHOP Hawaii: A Class Act

Story By Alana Folen Photos By Leah Friel
February 5 - 11, 2012

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Just listing Sarah Espino’s many achievements is a bit overwhelming: She’s the president of IHOP (International House of Pancakes) Hawaii and oversees five booming IHOP establishments including one location on the Big Island, two in Waikiki, one in Windward Mall and another in Pearl City. She’s also a stepmother to five and has a daughter with husband Vince, who is responsible for IHOP Hawaii’s business development.

  • Nutella Crepes & Eggs ($7)
  • (first row, from left) Llasenia Abrego, Maddy Wisser, Rudy Gonzales, (second row) Stacey Acma, Annika Espino, Sarah Espino, Kieran Wisser, Marita Hodges, Nalani Kai Procknow and Eric Procknow celebrate IHOP Hawaii's partnership with Children's Miracle Network.
  • Veggie Omelette ($7)
  • Bacon & Cheddar Hash Brown Stack ($7)
  • Hash Brown Crusted Chicken & Biscuit ($7)
  • Sarah Espino and daughter Annika share a laugh together.
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“Time has flown by! We took over the IHOP Hawaii franchise in June 2006,” Espino says. “The journey has been tough, it’s been a lot of work, but it’s also been very fun. I think we opened the restaurants at the right time. When I say I have six kids, it includes the restaurants,” she says with a laugh.

As a family-friendly restaurant chain, IHOP does not discriminate when it comes to big appetites and even bigger flavor. In fact, it’s safe to say that the eatery stands in a league of its own, serving up famous delicious entrees and hearty American classics that span way beyond the realm of breakfast.

“We feature new specials almost every two months, and offering our patrons what they want is the secret to our success,” Espino says. “It’s really about listening to our customers. We’re consistently changing with the times.”

Most recently, IHOP Hawaii unveiled its new 7 for $7 promotion, offering seven great meals all priced at $7 each. During the economic downturn, Espino says, IHOP wanted to offer its guests affordable meals that are available all day, every day until April 1. The lucky seven value options are Bacon-Wrapped Sirloin Steak & Eggs, Chicken & Waffles, Cheesy Western Omelette, Bacon & Cheddar Hash Brown Stack, Hash Brown Crusted Chicken & Biscuit, Nutella Crepes & Eggs and a Simple & Fit Veggie Omelette (under 600 calories).

“The most popular choices are Bacon-Wrapped Sirloin Steak & Eggs and Hash Brown Crusted Chicken & Biscuit. The majority of people also like Chicken & Waffles, too,” Espino states.

Bacon-Wrapped Sirloin Steak & Eggs features two petite USDA Select sirloin steaks wrapped in crispy “We’ve been receiving a very positive response from this promotion since it’s launched,” Espino says. “Everybody loves it and says they will come back to try the rest of the seven items.”

Espino is the woman behind the magic at IHOP Hawaii, and it’s no wonder IHOP is flourishing in every way possible. As an entrepreneur and mother, her superpowers are infinite. On the day of our Dining Out cover shoot (we made it an IHOP day), Espino graciously shared her business philosophy with us, but didn’t let her maternal duties fall to the wayside either. Vince dropped off their 13-year-old daughter Annika to the photo shoot at IHOP Ala Moana after a busy day of school at Punahou. Like all loving moms, Espino greeted her daughter with a kiss and that one famous question all children have become accustomed to: “How was your day?”

The interaction between mother and daughter was heartwarming, and Espino says being a mother is her No. 1 priority. After observing the way Espino runs her business, and the short time we spent with her and her daughter, it was quite apparent that Espino is a pro when it comes to balancing motherhood and a demanding career. She instills the same core values of persistence, dedication and hard work into her daughter and into her business. For Espino, these values are the underlying foundation from which success is born.

“Annika and I are very, very close. She loves golf and thrives in it. She’s also been competing and has been doing really well. I think the values that we’ve taught her over the years have allowed her to succeed.”

Espino also uses her position as president of IHOP Hawaii as a platform to give back to the community. Not only is she committed to providing excellent customer service and serving delicious all-American comfort food, but Espino proves that she’s just as dedicated to bettering the future of Hawaii’s keiki as well.

“With IHOP giving back to the community, I hope I’m teaching my daughter how important it is to help others,” she says.

And IHOP Hawaii soon will be flipping pancakes galore come Feb. 28 in honor of National Pancake Day. From 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. at IHOP restaurants across the nation (including all four Oahu locations), hungry diners can enjoy a free short stack of IHOP’s famous buttermilk pancakes, and in turn, make a monetary donation to IHOP’s national charity partner, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, which helps improve the lives of children at the 170 Network hospitals nationwide.

“All of the funds raised here will stay in our state and benefit Kapiolani Medical Center, Hawaii’s Children’s Miracle Network hospital,” Espino says. “We hope to raise at least $10,000 to support Kapiolani Children’s Miracle Network, and we’re currently accepting donations and will continue to do so until Feb. 28.

“Having my daughter exposed to all we do with Children’s Miracle Network, and having her realize how lucky she is to be healthy and not have any medical needs is very important to me. I’m happy to be able to share that with her — to open her eyes and have her realize that you have to be thankful for what you have. And at the same time I hope to instill in my daughter the value of helping other kids in need,” she adds.

In addition to IHOP Hawaii’s collaborative effort with Children’s Miracle Network, Espino has founded a program of her own, which she’s named Students Achievement Award Program. The goal? To work with Hawaii’s public schools to acknowledge academic and personal achievements across the board.

“The Students Achievement Award program is my ongoing project that I launched this month,” Espino explains, noting that the initial participating schools include Ali’Iolani, Gustav Webling, Pearl Harbor, Waialua, Laie and Maunawili elementary schools. “Schools right now have very limited budgets, so now I present student achievement awards to teachers at their discretion. For example, the awards can be awarded to the student (kindergarten through eighth grade) who scored the highest on a test or had complete attendance. The award equates to a free kid’s meal at IHOP — we have a variety of kid’s meals, from chicken strips to an omelette, mac and cheese and more.

“Education is very, very important,” Espino adds. “I think it’s the only thing that I can give to my children that can’t be taken away. I can buy my daughter a car, but someone can take that away from her. Unlike education, that’s something ingrained in her, and she’ll always have it. Education is top priority for me.”

According to Espino, Annika already has her eyes set on college and may perhaps follow in her mother’s footsteps and pursue business one day.

“I would love for someone to take over IHOP Hawaii when I retire, and there’s always hope that one of your children will, but I’m not going to force Annika. One thing I always tell her is that you have to choose a career you absolutely love.”

As for Espino, she’s witnessed the ups and downs of running a business firsthand, but through it all she’s maintained a vivacious appetite for success.

“We have 250 employees total, and knowing that I can provide jobs to a great number of people is very rewarding, along with providing good service and excellent food,” she says. “However, along with the good times also comes the tough times, and you just have to bear it and stick with it.”

IHOP Hawaii

  • Where
    • Ala Moana Center
    • 1850 Ala Moana Blvd.
    • (and other various locations)
  • Call
    • (808) 949-4467
  • Hours
    • Sunday – Thursday
    • 6 a.m. – 10 p.m.
    • Friday – Saturday
    • 6 a.m. – Midnight