Restaurant Insider with Anne Lee: Highway InnRestaurant Insider
April 24, 2022
Story By: Anne Lee | Photos by: Anne Lee
ANNE LEE speaks with Highway Inn’s MONICA TOGUCHI RYAN AND RUSSELL RYAN
Highway Inn is one of the oldest family-owned and -operated restaurants on Oahu — over 70 years, in fact. Now at the helm are third-generation owner Monica Toguchi Ryan and her husband Russell, who are carrying on Monica’s grandfather’s “taste of old Hawaii.”
What they didn’t expect was the pandemic. Brian Lee is a consultant who has a strategic partnership with ERC Specialists LLC. Brian wants to inform restaurant owners that there are ERC (Employee Retention Credits) that they may qualify for. We met at Highway Inn in Kakaako to try its popular dishes and talk about how this restaurant was able to benefit from the ERC program.
AL: Tell me the history of Highway Inn.
RR: At the age of 14, Monica’s grandfather Seiichi Toguchi began working as a dishwasher at the old City Café, where he met her grandmother, Nancy. That is also where he learned how to make Hawaiian food. After the outbreak of World War II, her grandparents and their three children were interned in Arkansas and California. Working in the mess halls of the Japanese internment camps, Seiichi mastered his culinary skills. At the end of 1946, the Toguchi family returned to Hawaii, and in September 1947, her grandparents opened the original Highway Inn on Farrington Highway — now the restaurant is located at 94-830 Moloalo St. In 2013, Highway Inn opened its second location in Kakaako.
Recent history is Monica and I married five years ago and just celebrated our daughter’s first birthday!
AL: What are some of the popular dishes?
RR: What many customers do not realize is that we serve breakfast in addition to our lunch and dinner menu. We have the French Toast ($10.95) with Big Island Puuhale bread, local Peterson Farm eggs, berries and our housemade lilikoi sauce. The Veggie Omelette ($13.95) features three local Peterson Farm eggs and veggies (available with egg whites).
The Highway Inn Tasting Plate ($27.95-$29.95, depending on protein) is our most popular dish, and comes with lau lau, chicken long rice, Okinawan sweet potato, lomi salmon, squid luau and haupia, all served in monkeypod hand-carved tableware.
The Smoked Moco ($11.95 mini; $16.95 regular) is served with our house moco sauce, and we also can upgrade to fried rice. Regular loco mocos are available with an upgrade to an Impossible plant-based patty.
The Plantation Plate ($21.95) comes with pulehu ribs, pulehu moa and pan-seared ahi/kajiki, served with furikake rice.
AL: During the pandemic, many restaurants had to pivot. Tell me how you adapted.
RR: We always had a thriving takeout business, especially at Waipahu, but it was walk-ins, telephone orders and fax (yes, we still have that machine for some customers). Mission No. 1 was to launch an online ordering platform. We also repurposed our idle catering van for deliveries. We quickly put together our Highway Inn at Home Menu, and realized that with everyone sitting at home all over the U.S. we could launch a Shopify site and sell our Hawaiian food online and ship it to the neighbor islands and later around the country. That insight allowed us to launch a new business sector. We have now shipped to 49 states.
We kept most items on our menu during the pandemic at our two main restaurants, although we had to reduce hours, resulting in scaling back weekday breakfast. At our Bishop Museum café, we had to scale back dramatically, however, the museum is bouncing back. Lastly, our catering business was on hold for two years as large gatherings evaporated. Still, we struck a contract with Meals on Wheels and catered to many frontline first responders.
AL: How did the Employee Retention Credit help you as a restaurant?
RR: ERC is, at its essence, free money from the U.S. Treasury. This allowed us to continue paying our employees without concerns, increasing pay rates, investing in our business for future efficiencies, improving food safety and reducing liabilities. During the pandemic, our landlords had to wait to get paid, and we are happy to say that ERC allowed us to catch up on our arrearages. In 2019, we invested in a new location in Waipahu. That investment meant we took on quite a bit of short-term debt that we could now repay faster than we originally planned.
AL: Can you explain the ERC program and how do restaurants get more information?
BL: The ERC passed under the CARES Act as part of the government relief program to reward business owners for retaining employees throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The uniqueness of the ERC for Hawaii restaurant owners is that they already qualify due to mandatory shutdowns. I would like to invite restaurant owners to a free ERC seminar from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 7 at 1314 S. King St. Ste. 1452. To register, email email@example.com or call 808-753-4800. These credits expire in 2025, so there is an urgency.