Keeping An Eye On The Culinary Future

Russell (left) and Jeff Hata at Y. Hata’s new employee lounge | Jo McGarry photo

It’s been a busy year already for food service wholesaler Y. Hata. In February, the company presented a $100,000 check to Culinary Institute of the Pacific’s director Conrad Nonaka, marking the company’s commitment to help build the institute’s new campus. And Wednesday, Y. Hata unveiled a new Google-inspired employee lounge created by bringing together two Matson shipping containers and the talents of interior designer Cathy Lee. Employees – there are almost 200 of them now – are a highly valued part of the Y. Hata success story, and it was clear Wednesday afternoon that as preparations were under way for the launch of The Lounge, no one was more excited about the employee fun area than chairman and CEO Russell Hata.

“We had this idea for a while,” says Hata, “of giving our employees somewhere they could enjoy.”

In conversation with Cathy Lee, the Matson container idea was born.

“It’s really incredible,” he says of the area that houses a flat-screen TV, couches, pool table and plenty of room to enjoy lunch. “Who would have thought you could do this with a container?”

As longtime Y. Hata chef Ernesto Limcaco rushed to and fro with dishes for the launch party, you could sense the excitement and energy. It’s all indicative of the change at Y. Hata since Russell took over the struggling family business, founded in 1913 by his grandfather Yoichi.

“It got to the point where the company was in such bad shape that a local banker advised us to just close the place down. NOW,” recalls Hata.

But those were just fighting words for a man who says he always thought of himself as “kind of a lazy local guy.”

Inspired by the work his grandfather had started, Hata determined to rebuild the company, forging strong relationships among supplier, employees and customers, and focusing on core values.

“We value the future,” he says. “We realize that anything we do that involves the next generation is important to our core value.”

Prominently displayed at the company’s Sand Island headquarters are posters that depict core values, implemented with the intention of keeping those values for the next 100 years.

Today, in addition to its generous support of the new culinary campus at KCC, Y. Hata funds three yearly scholarships for CIP students, helps sponsor the program’s Team Hawaii at the national American Culinary Federation competition, and mentors culinary students through an internship program with Limcaco.

The turnaround at Y. Hata is impressive – not just internally, but because of the impact the company’s success is having on local culinary community.

“We believe in our young people and in our commitment to supporting programs that support them,” says Hata.

And he has achieved another element of success as his son Jeff is now part of the company, making Y. Hata one of only a small group of family-run businesses that continue into fourth generation.

But despite the company’s success, you won’t see anyone in the Hata family slowing down.

“I think I’m more aware of how things can change than maybe other people are,” says Hata. “I’ve seen how easily it can happen.”

Happy eating!