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For Mom-and-Pops

Y. Hata’s new ChefZone provides everything independent restaurants need, from forks to local food to cooking tips and stylish yet ‘green’ takeout containers

Christmas has come early for hundreds of food-service operators and caterers as ChefZone opens its doors this week. Russell Hata, chairman and CEO of Y. Hata Co. Ltd., is the Santapreneur with this gift to business.

ChefZone is Hawaii’s first cash-and-carry wholesale club for independent restaurateurs, caterers, food trucks and nonprofits. Its 6,000-product warehouse features fresh meat, produce, dairy, dry goods, frozen foods, baked products, Asian/ethnic foods, disposables, cleaning needs and restaurant supplies.

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General manager Matt Bono discusses product evaluation and customer needs with Russell Hata, Y. Hata Co. chairman and CEO | Photo by Nathalie Walker

But members pack a lot more than groceries at ChefZone, located at 2888 Ualena St., five minutes from the airport.

“Our goal is to provide value-added services through an entrepreneurship center and support smaller operations by saving them time and money,” Hata says. “This segment does not require bulk deliveries to keep their inventory stocked.”

ChefZone’s EntrĂ©e-preneurship Center, directed by Christopher Lee, teaches operators how to run business efficiently, market themselves and keep apprised of restaurant trends.

Menu development, food costing, graphic design and social media guidance are among the programs offered, according to Iolani grad Lee, who has 10 years of leadership experience in food service and hospitality.

A demonstration kitchen, where executive chef Matthew Small is the star, advances product knowledge and best practices through workshops and certification programs.

Small was formerly executive chef for Haleiwa Joe’s Seafood Grill and a Y. Hata customer for years. Now he’s cooking up recipes for success.

A tabletop showroom, managed by Jackie Cabebe, with more than 10 years’ experience in restaurant supply, features china, glass-ware, silverware, linen and serving accessories.

“You’d be amazed at how far disposable party ware has come,” the Leilehua grad beams. “Eco-conscious caterers can be both green and flamboyant without sacrificing presentation.”

ChefZone’s 45,000-square-foot building is turning heads with its striking red signage and ample 100-stall parking space.

Margot Sakazaki, development director, drives the brand identity and image of ChefZone.

“Our name and mission are prominently displayed on the wall,” she points out. “If anyone doubts who we are and why we exist, they need only to look up as they walk to our cash registers.”

ChefZone general manager Matt Bono leads the young executive team that manages this new resource and concept in Hawaii. Bono has more than 10 years of experience with cash-and-carry outlets in California and Washington, including Restaurant Depot, the nation’s largest operator.

“No one offers what ChefZone does,” he boasts. “It is a natural fit for the Islands, where small businesses dominate the economic landscape.”

Inside ChefZone is a wonderland of wholesale shopping with a 78,000-square-foot refrigerated chill area, 4,600-square-foot freezer, 25,000 square feet of dry goods and a 440-square-foot tabletop showroom.

Products available by piece or cases are immaculately stocked in wide aisles marked by distinct red signs. There are 40 friendly employees to help clients navigate the well-stocked shelves.

ChefZone founder and president Hata is a name synonymous with wholesale food distribution in Hawaii. The 101-year-old, family-owned Y. Hata enterprise has an innate knowledge of local clients’ and chefs’ needs.

But it saw an underserved segment that presented an opportunity.

“We are aware of small, independent and family-run operators who make daily trips to Costco or Sam’s Club for basic provisions,” Hata says. “Time, convenience and consistency are key factors.”

Market research bared out those facts. Time was right for a cash-and-carry concept.

Will his vision costing “millions” in start-up investment pay off?

Only time will tell. But industry observers tout far-reaching benefits.

Jo McGarry, restaurant specialist and real estate adviser, states, “As a restaurant owner, you are required to be chef, accountant, human resource manager, systems controller, PR department, media star and real estate expert, as well as be creative, artistic and groundbreaking with cuisine.

“ChefZone brings to the market a place where everyone understands those needs. Everything is in one place. For chefs, the convenience alone adds up to hundreds of hours a year. As we head to growth and economic development in the industry, ChefZone is perfectly poised.”

“Find a need and fill it” is a longstanding business axiom. While that’s ChefZone’s vision, it isn’t without risks.

Prevailing wisdom claims 75-90 percent of new restaurants fail in their first year. Certainly, bad food can’t be the culprit. At least, we hope not.

There’s more to running a food-service business, including having a solid business plan, finding the right location, menu planning, monitoring labor and food costs, creating customer-friendly ambiance and distinguishing oneself from competitors.

Add to that public-safety mandates, including food safety, health and sanitation requirements, and environmental concerns, and the mom-and-pop operator who just wants to feed the masses with good food can be overwhelmed.

How can they beat the odds?

An integrated resource like ChefZone and other suppliers who take an interest in the strategic success of clients help sustain the industry.

That’s a passion of Santapreneur Hata.

The other is using this opportunity to support locally grown products in Hawaii.

Hata and executive chef Small know that all meals begin with quality ingredients. Sourcing farm-to-table and seasonal products is a key thrust of ChefZone.

An example is ChefZone’s exclusive distributorship of Paniolo Cattle Company grass-fed beef from Parker Ranch on Hawaii island. Wholesale club members benefit from agriculture-support partnerships, which Small indicates are both sustainable and affordable.

Reminder: ChefZone is not a consumer shopping outlet, tempting as it is to be lured into a big-box shopping experience for big families. Membership (free) requires a general excise tax license and federal ID number.

We know how much you enjoy shopping among those business owners with flatbed carts laden with bags of rice, gallons of sauces, boxes of paper goods, and tons of produce. They stand in line with the housewife with two kids and two bags of cookies.

Not at ChefZone.

The customers in line are entrepreneurs and food service operators. Talk story and get to know them. Development director Sakazaki says it’s an “ohana atmosphere.”

They’ll never run out of aloha.

ChefZone, 2888 Ualena St., off Lagoon Drive, is open seven days a week.

Website: ChefZone.com