Zippy’s: The Way To Go
Five decades after first opening its doors, Zippy’s keeps humming along with food favorites to please everyone from Obama to Mariota — both here in Hawai‘i and, beginning next year, in Las Vegas.
The No. 1 favorite topic here is not politics or sports. It’s local food — what, where and when to eat it. And the company that has all the answers is FCH Enterprises Inc. — aka Zippy’s.
With careful study, hard work and five decades of practice, the chain of local diners has captured tūtū’s secret to pleasing Hawai‘i customers. For 24 hours a day, at most of Zippy’s 24 island eateries, its kitchens prepare and deliver the flavors that our ethnic jumble of appetites crave.
As attorney Martin Hsia once said, “It doesn’t matter how old you are, or where in the islands you grew up. If you call Hawai‘i home, home tastes like Zippy’s.”
The sons of immigrants, Francis and Charlie Higa are the FCH company’s founders and namesakes. In 1966 the hard-working brothers launched what is now the last of Okinawan family-owned diners on O‘ahu. They left their dad’s meat market to open Zippy’s take-out at 1725 S. King St. near McCully, with saimin going for 50 cents. Later, they unveiled their sit-down restaurant, Saimin Lānai, behind the original eatery. Chef Shiro Matsuo (later to head Shiro’s Saimin Haven) was food consultant, the first in a long line of popular island chefs to befriend and support Zippy’s.
The busy King Street hub is still open, serving its uniformly good grinds and doubling as the administrative headquarters for the local empire backed by 2,100 employees. And next year FCH will launch Zippy’s No. 25 in Las Vegas (that other favorite island topic).
CEO Jason Higa is the son of the late Francis Higa. (Retired brother Charlie still visits old-time employees on occasion.) As expected, Jason Higa put in time as a dishwasher on the graveyard shift before college, and he practiced law for five years before rejoining the food line to work with his dad. Like Francis and Uncle Charlie used to do, Higa proudly shares the Zippy’s philosophy.
“As we move forward into the second generation, we honor the legacy of our founders by continually sharing the core values with all of our employees: humility, integrity, passion and support,” he says.
These values were served with the first humble bowl of saimin at the King Street outlet, he notes, and still resonate with that feast you gulped down last Friday of Korean fried chicken, chili, oxtail soup, macaroni salad, beef stew, chocolate dobash cake and a dozen Napples to go.
Nice sentiments, of course. But man, it also tastes so good! And Higa’s choice off the 200-item menu? Simple. “Saimin with a piece of chicken!”
For Paul Yokota, the very busy company president, the restaurant business changes quickly.
“You have to be adaptive and willing to learn new things every day,” he says.
This includes product promotions, updated employee training and logo designs, contests, prize drawings and joint projects with fashion outlets, and more.
Yokota assures Ninth Island food fans that Zippy’s first mainland venture is on track for a 2020, third-quarter opening in Henderson, a large community in the Las Vegas metropolitan area. They believe Vegas is ready for a taste of Zippy’s, especially with its large Hawai‘i population that gets ‘ono for good old home cooking.
“We’re contracting with the architect and kitchen designer and waiting to sign for construction on the large site,” Yokota says earlier this month, pausing between meetings to chat in the Makiki Zippy’s ‘Ohana Room. An ‘Iolani and UH grad who grew up eating at Zippy’s, he worked in the international hotel industry before joining FCH in 2008. (His favorite order is “Zip Min with ginger.”)
And there are hints of more to come. The Vegas property at Badura Avenue and Montessouri Street is near Rainbow Boulevard and the 215 Beltway — a site that will have a 12,000-square-foot central commissary kitchen, a bakery and take-out section, plus the 7,000-square-foot restaurant. It will “serve as a production facility for additional locations,” according to an Eater Vegas dining guide report, which quotes Higa.
“It’s a natural fit for us,” he states. “The area is burgeoning with residential housing, and it has an efficient transportation hub to support (more Zippys) in other parts of Las Vegas.”
Yokota, meanwhile, works with his team to put all the moving parts together both here and in Nevada.
“People in Las Vegas have been asking for us for years, and we think we have the right menu,” he says. They also count on serving plenty of hungry, healthy night owls and casino workers.
Through the Zippy’s brand, the company feeds and supports island people in ways that far exceed the reliable yet ever-changing menu of comfort food at its diners. Fundraising chili sales have earned millions of dollars for sports teams and nonprofit groups over the years. Participants can keep $4 of each $9 ticket they sell to fans of its chili, pancake mix, meat sauce and Portuguese bean soup.
Local charities like Special Olympics and Make-A-Wish Hawai‘i have reaped substantial grants, some of which start from collection boxes at the diners. Before long come five-figure checks of support from FCH through matching funds. A more concrete gift is at Hawai‘i Okinawa Center where the Yeiko and Kameko Higa Building honors Higa’s grandparents and the family heritage.
On the wholesale end, island suppliers, farms and cattle ranches are happy to feed the Zippy’s appetite, and they’re proud of the connection. Hisae Uki of Sun Noodle, for example, recalls how father Hidehito Uki’s company worked with Zippy’s to meet its menu standards for saimin. Through “much care and thought,” she explains, the noodles achieved that ideal balance of flour, salt and water.
“Zippy’s is such a staple of our identity. We eat saimin, and it reflects on our roots.”
For its O‘ahu restaurants, aquaponic salad greens come in from Kunia Country Farms, Lā‘ie Gold papayas from Kahuku Farms, coffee beans from Hawaiian Paradise Coffee, eggs from Eggs Hawai‘i in Wai‘anae, tomatoes from Sugarland Farms, and tons of ground beef from Kūnoa Cattle Co.
“Zippy’s was our local hangout after school,” says Iris Shimabukuro, who oversees operations for the 70-year-old family-owned Eggs Hawai‘i, “and now they have our eggs. How exciting is that?!”
In a Locally Ours video on the Zippy’s website, she adds, “We are blessed to be in partnership with such an amazing company.”
Yokota says success all starts with tasty, reliable food, of course, but employees and customers are what sustain the company. The ultimate goal is “doing things that taste good in a place (where) everyone feels welcome.”
About 300 workers have been with Zippy’s for 20 to 40 years already, and he says diverse and ever-expanding projects offer good training and room to grow in all aspects of the food industry — from the kitchen to public relations. They also get to know each community before opening a diner there.
With their familiar faces and advice, Zippy’s servers are as big a draw as the food. Some hungry folks come only during the shift of their favorite waitress. One Honolulu man has been showing up in the same booth five mornings a week for 35 years and always orders a veggie omelette. It’s habit-forming, all right.
Clubs meet at their always-open, always-nearby diner — to eat, laugh, crochet, talk story or play bingo. Seniors Club members are everywhere, especially for breakfast, happily gobbling up their waffles and French toast with a 10-percent discount. Young folks come to grab a late bite, when the rest of the town is shut down.
Coaches, neighbors, uncles and aunties are regulars at the newest spot in Hilo, which opened in 2013, in Kahului (2008) and across O‘ahu, sharing opinions while grinding away. Marcus Mariota likes Portuguese sausage, fried rice, eggs over easy and a strawberry shake. Barack Obama votes with Yokota for the Zip Min. Chef Roy Yamaguchi likes the fried chicken. Konishiki goes for the Zip Pac. Korean chicken and Zip Min are currently the biggest hits. Or how about the new Mochizadas?
Yokota notes that the recent Maui fires also brought new customers into the Kahului restaurant. Stranded tourists hauled in their luggage and were ready to eat while waiting to get to their hotels in South Maui.
To stay competitive, Zippy’s keeps tabs on favorite orders, switches up items and brings back others. For quality control, FCH’s central Food Solutions International kitchen in Waipi‘o prepares, tastes and delivers daily to each outlet such mainstays as its chili, stews, curries and macaroni salad. Napoleon’s Bakery headquarters is also in Waipi‘o, where it creates sweet pastries plus 1.1 million Napples a year, to name just a few calories.
As head of research and development, chef Wayne Komamura tries out new ideas via customer taste tests. If they don’t like it, he declares, it doesn’t fly. His highest goal? “To see something that you’ve created touch thousands of people and make them happy.”
Zippy’s partners include A Catered Experience (since 1978), Napoleon’s Bakery (1983), Food Solutions International (1998), Germaine’s Lū‘au (1986-2019, FCH still caters the meal), Pōmaika‘i Ballrooms (2013); Kāhala Sushi (1998) and Pearl City Sushi (1999); and island suppliers like Meadow Gold, Armstrong Produce, and Cades Schutte LLP (brand protection).
For years, Zippy’s has won “best of” awards for family dining, late night eatery, local food company and potluck pickup. But the company gives back just as much by honoring talented artists. For example, its grand-prize winner for the 2019 Share Hawai‘i drawing contest is Vincent Verhasselt of Kapolei Middle School. His work has been reinterpreted by POW!WOW! founder Jasper Wong for a “Life is a Picnic” mural now on view at the ‘Ewa Beach Zippy’s.
While gazing at the mural and at the many colorful new artworks and promotional displays at Zippy’s diners, folks can look forward to sampling August’s “Tropical” flavor of the month in the form of Lychee Boba Cake, Pineapple Snack Cake, Pineapple Fritter Donut, Guava Dream Cheese Square and Liliko‘i Bar.
However, as a Pearl City customer once said, “You also know you can order something healthy, if you want to.”