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Start Your Business Success Stories

How This Hawaiian-Inspired Restaurant Chain Turns Mistakes Into Lessons

Ono Hawaiian BBQ Credit: Courtesy of Ono Hawaiian BBQ

Getting started is never easy. In fact, it may be the hardest part of opening a business – mustering up enough courage to put yourself out there. But it can also be the most rewarding.

My brother Joe and I run a few different concepts, and have always had our hand in entrepreneurial pursuits; but in all our years, nothing has given us as much joy as Ono Hawaiian BBQ.

Ono Hawaiian BBQ is a fast-casual restaurant with over 65 locations in California and Arizona, serving up "aloha in every bite" through Hawaiian-inspired lunches and island specialties. Every Ono Hawaiian BBQ dish is created with fresh ingredients using authentic Hawaiian recipes, and made-to-order in each restaurant.

Founding Ono was a tough battle in comparison to our other business ventures, but it certainly had the biggest payoff. Here are some lessons we learned through our struggles and mistakes.

The first piece of advice I can share with prospective entrepreneurs is to maintain a degree of flexibility, and to have a backup plan prepared.

When we initially tried to open Ono, we had a hard time getting a response from landlords and brokers; so, we researched and purchased our first store — located at Santa Monica and Bundy Drive — from an existing restaurant. This made it easy to convert with a limited budget. 

Once open, we had a hard time lining up a second location within the Los Angeles metro area. Though we initially aimed to expand throughout the southern California region, these initial hurdles led us to pursue new areas for our expansion. We chose to open shop in Phoenix, which has proven to be a successful market for us and was a "Plan B" that worked out in the long run.

Rather than attempting to transform our restaurants into smorgasbords that serve an overwhelming selection of food and beverage items, we've realized that our stores perform better when they focus on signature offerings.

When we opened our Santa Monica and Bundy location, we started with a larger menu with many variations and combination options. At that time, our team saw a lot of mistakes. In the first six months, we changed our menu three times. From that, we learned to hone in on what is important to us: serving fresh, quality food made to order. This format is still effective within our business today. Getting the menu right will have a huge influence on your overall success.

Another helpful tool is knowing your own trajectory, and realizing that growing at a steady pace and focusing on quality over quantity of locations is key. After opening around six or seven locations, landlords finally began paying attention to us. We quickly expanded to about 30 restaurants.

But the market had other plans – The Great Recession of 2008 hit, and we were forced to regroup. We chose to freeze new openings in 2009 and spent the entire year reorganizing our company structure by separating our personnel into different departments. We learned to work harder and smarter to make things work.

Throughout the years, we continue to see challenges. But we face them head-on because of the strong team behind us. 

One of the most valuable things a company can do is to hire good people. A lot of our employees have been with us a long time – most of which started as store-level managers or as staff within the restaurants. This has helped us to build a strong company culture from the bottom up. We've found that when you invest in your staff, you retain employees over a longer period.

We hope it continues this way, and we're fortunate enough to continue the growth pattern we've seen for the last 15 years.

About the author: Joshua Liang is the CEO of Ono Hawaiian BBQ, along with his brother Joe, who serves as president. Ono Hawaiian BBQ is a fast-casual restaurant concept with locations in California and Arizona, serving up "aloha in every bite" through their Hawaiian-inspired plate lunches and island specialties.