Restaurant Insider with Anne Lee: Zippy’sRestaurant Insider
February 13, 2022
Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: LAWRENCE TABUDLO
ANNE LEE speaks with Zippy’s director of culinary operations chef TREVOR LUKE
No matter where you are in the world, and whether you’ve lived or visited Hawaii, hearing the name Zippy’s will definitely make your mouth water, bringing back a sense of nostalgia. Celebrating 57 years this October, this locally owned and operated restaurant sells over 100 tons of its famous chili every month. With 24 locations on Oahu, Maui, Hawaii Island (and coming soon to Las Vegas), this iconic restaurant is constantly evolving, keeping our favorite dishes coming and including new monthly specials.
To keep up with this demand, chef Trevor Luke, director of culinary operations, oversees a kitchen staff to ensure that each restaurant location can deliver a wonderful, consistent dining experience every day.
We met in the Ohana Room at the Makiki location and shared some of his favorite dishes, as we talked about the upcoming collaborations and the Mahalo May give-back program, a benefit for four local nonprofits in Hawaii.
AL: Let’s talk about the evolution of Zippy’s restaurants. What key items from the beginning have changed or been enhanced over the years?
TL: Zippy’s has always been about serving the comfort foods of Hawaii. From the very beginning, brothers Francis and Charlie Higa knew that one of the staples of local-style eating was saimin. In fact, some people may recall that the very first dine-in restaurant was originally called the “Saimin Lanai,” in reference to the open-air area that was behind the first Zippy’s in McCully. On that lanai, they served saimin and teri beef sticks. That Saimin Lanai gradually started to serve some of the same plate lunch items that the counter in the front of the building sold, and eventually, the dine-in restaurant was born and has evolved into what it is today.
AL: Why do we call it a plate lunch, and why is mac salad a staple in plate lunches?
TL: Back when sugar cane and pineapple were the cash crops of Hawaii, workers of many ethnicities came together on the plantations. Each ethnic group brought homemade foods to lunch, many times in a “kau kau tin” or Japanese bento box. As each ethnic enclave became familiar with the other, they would then share their tins, getting to know each other through their food. Eventually, commercial lunch wagons came to sell these multiethnic lunches to workers, but now they were served on paper plates, hence the term “plate lunch.”
It’s likely that mac salad was not only tasty, but also an easy and affordable side dish to make. Dried elbow macaroni is relatively inexpensive, and mayonnaise has the tendency to mellow out the sweet and salty flavor profiles that are normally found in the proteins of a plate lunch (think about how wonderful a piece of teri beef tastes when it has touched the mac salad on the plate!).
AL: How did you get into the culinary industry?
TL: I graduated from Mid-Pacific Institute and enrolled at University of Hawaii at Manoa. After my first year there, I realized it wasn’t for me. I explored the option of going into the world of culinary arts. I was very happy to enroll in a different type of college — the Culinary Institute of the Pacific at Kapiolani Community College — where I eventually received degrees in both culinary arts and patisserie/ confiserie. During my time at KCC, I worked as a cook at Zippy’s Kahala, and after earning my degrees and bit more experience, here I am today. I feel honored and privileged to be able to work for an iconic local brand that strives to buy many of its ingredients locally.
AL: What did you prepare for us?
TL: Zip Pac ($14.50, restaurant; $12.45, fast-food) is the most famous item on our menu. It comes with a piece of fried chicken, breaded hoki fish, teri beef, and Spam on a bed of rice topped by furikake and takuan. (Regular pictured; mini comes with a piece of fried chicken and teri beef.)
Zip Min ($12.95, restaurant only).
Loco Moco ($13.95, restaurant; $12.25, fast-food) has hamburger steak with two island eggs and rice smothered with brown gravy.
Korean Fried Chicken ($14.25, restaurant; $12.30, fast-food).
Apple Napple ($3.35 fast-food) is our most famous bakery item. Expect flaky pastry crust turnovers available in apple or coconut.
Orange Bang ($4.90, large, fast-food) made from real orange juice; and Lilikoi Drink ($3, large, fast-food).
AL: If you could prepare a meal for anyone, who would that be and why?
TL: My grandparents have been amazingly supportive of me. I haven’t been able to cook as much as I should have for them. I’d really just want to cook for my grandparents — maybe every dish on the Zippy’s menu over the course of a month. It’s a very small way to thank them for all that they’ve done for me and to honor their impact on my life.
AL: Zippy’s is known for giving back to the community and Mahalo May is one example. Can you tell me more about it?
TL: Zippy’s celebrates Mahalo May with its Kokua Pac (sold throughout the month at all locations) that will benefit four nonprofits. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to Make-A-Wish Hawaii (May 2-8), Honolulu Museum of Art (May 9-15), Hawaii Meals on Wheels (May 16-22) and National Kidney Foundation of Hawaii (May 23-29).
AL: Anything else you want to share?
TL: Our Kahala and Pearl City locations have sushi bars in addition to the Zippy’s menu, and we serve fresh local fish. A fresh piece of ahi nigiri and some salmon nigiri, washed down with a bottle of sake, is what makes me happiest.