Monday, May 30, 2022

Fresh Fast Flavorful Food the Plate Lunch

While McDonald’s, Burger King, Taco Bell and Wendy’s are a staple for millions of Americans looking for a quick fast meal during the lunch period. They define fast food for many, however my dad lived in Hawaii when I was a kid and every time visited, I could not wait to go to a corner outlet, food truck or food cart and get a ‘Plate Lunch;’ it was a meal like mom cooked and served at home. You ate with a fork not your hands. It was in fact a meal not just a grab-n-go experience according to Steven Johnson, Grocerant Guru® at Tacoma, WA based Foodservice Solutions®.

They were all delicious, devoured, and delectable.

Hawaiian Bros Island Grill is in the process of expanding and this year year-over-year sales growth of 172%. Cameron McNie founder and co-CEO Hawaiian Bros Island Grill when recently talking about its growth stated, ““We got caught off-guard by the sales,” … “Our first two locations had opened really well and our third literally doubled what we were doing at those. We realized we had some major throughput problems.  You know the kind of problems every restaurant operator wants!

So, Kansas City, Mo.-based Hawaiian Bros retooled its drive-thru operations with the goal of serving one car every 30 seconds. Those efforts have paid off.

Hawaiian Bros currently has 30 locations, with plans to open another 15 units this year. All but two restaurants have Drive-thru’s. Its sales grew 172% in 2021, compared to the prior year, to $56.8 million, according to Technomic. In 2020, it had just nine locations. And it operated only four stores the year before that.

This is fresh fast food, that you eat with a fork!  Hawaiian Bros is currently seeing average unit volumes of $4 million to $5 million, McNie said. “It’s absolutely our goal to open locations with drive-thru’s,” he said. “I don’t think we would open another location without a drive-thru.”

In case you did not know, or are unfamiliar with Hawaiian cuisine, the plate lunch is essentially the island version of the Southern staple “meat and three.” It typically includes two scoops of white rice, topped with a protein, served with a generous portion of mayo-based macaroni salad.

So, as the story goes, This new normal comfort food offering, traditionally served on a segmented plate (hence the name), is said to have its roots in the 1880s, when it became the must-have lunch for workers on Hawaii’s pineapple and sugar plantations. Back then, many of the laborers came from Asia, so lunches typically came from leftover meat from last night’s dinner, served atop rice.

I showed up about 50 years later, when as I said lunch wagons began selling similar meals to workers, served on those now-iconic segmented plates. The carb-heavy meals soon became popular at restaurants and drive-ins on the islands.

With a nice twist most of the plate lunch’s protein options have their roots in Asian cuisine. Hawaiian Bros, for example, serves teriyaki chicken, kalua pork, Huli Huli chicken, sweet-and-spicy Molokai chicken and more.

Other plate lunch establishments might serve loco moco (hamburger patties topped with brown gravy and fried egg) or Spam musabi, in which the tinned meat is wrapped in nori. Simplicity is the name of the game at Hawaiian Bros, where the kitchen uses just over 80 SKUs to create the menu.

McNie continued, “We wanted to keep the menu very simplistic,”. “We’ve seen some great brands do really well with one or two core items. We just really saw the value in that. We want to be great at simple things.”

McNie founded the concept with his brother, Tyler, in 2017, and opened the first restaurant the following year. The two grew up in Oregon and worked at the small plate lunch chain owned by their family.

The McNies, though, decided to start their own concept, Hawaiian Bros Island Grill.

Cameron McNie, stated,  We’re kind of our own thing,”. “People try to bucket us into fast casual and QSR. Where we fit, I’m not 100% sure. I know we definitely have elements of both. We certainly aim to be quick, efficiency, speed, that’s a huge value to us. But the quality of the food, the fresh ingredients, making things to order, that’s an element of fast casual. Our food is fresh. There’s no freezers, fryers or microwaves.”

The key to Hawaiian Bros’ speed is the drive-thru, which generates 53% of the chain’s revenue.

After seeing the throughput issues at that third location, the chain decided to focus on drive-thru efficiency. Most kitchens now have a double-sided make line, with one side focusing on drive-thru orders. During busy times, two to three employees are stationed outside, at the drive-thru, with handheld devices to take orders.

And the chain has been adding second windows at the drive-thru, to better control the traffic flow. Customers pick up drinks at the first window and food at the next.

“Our operation in the kitchen is faster than the order-taking operation,” McNie said. “We had to figure out the math on, How do we get the right amount of orders coming in that we can produce?”

McNie said Hawaiian Bros is currently on the hunt for capital, to allow it to open more locations even more quickly. And it is in the midst of finishing franchising documents and hiring employees to focus on a future franchised business.

The McNies always wanted Hawaiian Bros to be a fun place to work. So, they’ve listened to employees to make that happen. The chain offers flexible schedules, “cool” (and free) crew shirts and hats, free meals during every shift, free health insurance and a generous vacation offering, he said.

“This has got to be a fun restaurant to work at,” McNie said. “We don’t want to be heavy on rules … Our goal is to be generous to the employees; they’re the ones making this happen.”

More than 80 employees who were essential to the opening of Hawaiian Bros’ first few stores were recently given an ownership stake in the company, he said. “Some cooks that were there on opening day got a piece of ownership in the company,” he said.

How are you standing out in a crowded field?  Fresh fast food on a plate that you wat with a fork is a good place to start.

Don’t over reach. Are you ready for some fresh ideations? Do your food marketing ideations look more like yesterday than tomorrow? Interested in learning how Foodservice Solutions® can edify your retail food brand while creating a platform for consumer convenient meal participationdifferentiation and individualization?  Email us at:

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