Tuesday | June 02, 2015
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Going native

HILO — Another new restaurant has landed center stage in the Keaau Shopping Center.

While a number of different dining ideas have cycled through the prime shopping center location over the years — Mexican, sports bar, night club, steak house — the newest iteration comes with some on-site experience.

The owner of the last restaurant to close, Hokulani’s, is also the owner of the newest, Native Pastas & Steaks. He’s Corpuz Safranca, better known as “Poncho” of Poncho’s Solar Services, an installation, equipment, sales and service company with operations on Maui, Lanai, Oahu and in Hilo. Safranca owned and operated Hokulani’s for five years until it closed about eight months ago.

Hokulani’s was doing well and was about to be sold late last year when the buyers backed out and the deal fell through, Safranca said. At that point, he closed the restaurant.

“The first time was really good,” he said, but he still held the lease and his staff reminded him that he’d better get something going since he was still paying rent on the 6,000-square-foot space. Native Pastas & Steaks opened Feb. 7 in the shopping center, a W.H. Shipman Ltd.-owned property. While Hokulani’s was primarily a steak house, Native Pastas & Steaks has added Italian dishes to the menu.

“I like seafood stew (cioppino),” Safranca said.

At first he knew nothing about the restaurant business and relied on friends and staff. But the veteran businessman learned quickly enough that basic principles are the same everywhere.

“Like anything, it’s managing. You manage well, you’ll be fine,” he said.

Focusing on “food costs, labor, cutting out the waste — it’s paying for itself,” he said. He also learned that old, used equipment is not worth owning. “I ended up changing everything. The old stuff breaks down and costs more.”

He’s had loyal clientele but in higher age brackets. “The young people don’t want to go because that’s where their parents are,” he said. “Always the moms and dads.” He’s also seeing more Chinese tour groups filling up his 70-seat dining room.

His business plan? “It’s gotta be quality food,” he said. “Everything is from the Big Island — Hilo produce and fish, and local beers and wine when the new license comes in. That’s what makes the place unique,” he said.

Safranca hired Gloria Warner, a former Las Vegas restaurant manager (her son formerly managed Hokulani’s) to handle the day-to-day operations of the restaurant. They’re in the process of applying for a liquor license to carry beer and wine only (customers may bring their own in the meantime). The limited bar will help keep the ambiance less like a sports bar and more like a family restaurant, Warner said.

Warner said the new menu focuses on fewer items of higher quality, reducing storage costs. “It’s like a fresh start,” she said. “We’re developing the Italian.” The restaurant’s chefs also prepare unannounced daily specials such as almond crusted mahi mahi with mandarin orange glaze, she said, and freshly made cheesecake.

Live musical entertainment is provided from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. There are 13 employees, full- and part-time, most freshly hired for Native Pastas & Steaks’ opening.

“We haven’t really advertised but we’re getting repeat customers, and a good reputation,” Warner said. “People seem to like it.”

“We’re just trying to satisfy everybody’s yearning for Italian food.”