The Folks Behind Lihue Barbecue

Pamela Varma Brown, a former MidWeek Kaua‘i contributing writer, has been a Kaua‘i resident for 24 years. In November 2012, she released Kauai Stories: Life on the Garden Island Told by Kaua‘i’s People. The anthology is a charming and mystical account of voyaging canoes, plantation life, World War II, and Kaua‘i artists. I am honored to have contributed the story Tasting Kaua‘i.

The following excerpt from the book is from the owners of Lihue Barbecue Inn. For more information, visit KauaiStories.net.

Lihue Barbecue Inn is an island tradition, family-owned and operated since 1940, when Masaichi Sasaki decided to open a restaurant for the people of Kaua‘i. Diners are still treated to homemade food, and lunches and dinners are still complete meals including freshly baked bread, soup or salad, entree with a side vegetable and a slice of homemade cream pie for dessert. Customer loyalty spans generations; patrons now include grandchildren of original customers, some coming in with their own children. People often see friends in the restaurant, enjoying brief chats before sitting down to eat.

Current owner Millie Sasaki, 81, has worked in the restaurant since she was a young woman married to the founder’s son, Henry Sasaki, who passed on in 2006. Her daughter, Donna Muramoto, now manages the business and literally grew up in the restaurant. The two ladies greet everyone who walks in, often asking about parents, children and grandchildren. Barbecue Inn is a bustling operation, serving three meals per day.

Continuing a Legacy

Millie Sasaki: My husband’s father, Masaichi Sasaki, started Lihue Barbecue Inn in 1940. He used to be a chauffeur for the Wilcox family, then he went to school to learn how to operate a restaurant. We have been located in the same place since he first opened.

In the beginning, he did very badly. He didn’t know what to do. It was like that until December 1941 when World War II broke out. When the soldiers came, he finally had customers. The restaurant has done well ever since that time.

We haven’t changed our original concept of giving you a whole meal. It started out with homemade bread and butter, soup or small salad, then your entree and your dessert. With our Japanese-style meals you don’t have any dessert, but you have pickled vegetables and a little somen salad. Our food has always been home-cooked, not commercial.

The restaurant was always called Lihue Barbecue Inn, and till today people wonder why because we don’t have anything barbecued. We don’t know why either, but we have kept the name the same.

When I got married, my husband was already working in the restaurant, so I came into the business right away. It came with the package! I was still young and very energetic. When our children were young, we had a playpen in the kitchen. I did everything in the early years, eventually cooking, too, but my favorite part has always been meeting people.

My husband loved this restaurant and what he was providing for the people of Kaua‘i. This was his true love. It was really in his blood. Even if he was sick, he had his favorite chair in the corner. From there, he could direct traffic. It was amazing.

When my husband passed on in 2006, I wondered if that would be the end of the restaurant. But this was so important to him. My daughter Donna stepped in and said, “I’ll run it.” So we are carrying on my husband’s and his father’s legacy, thanks to Donna. Without her it could not be done.

I still come here every night for my own sake. When I see everyone eating and happy, oh, that makes me feel good. One of my favorite passages is, “Happiness held is just a seed. Happiness shared is a flower.” You’ve got to love what you do, so that energy goes out, and everybody else will feel it.

Donna Muramoto: I grew up in the restaurant. We were living right in the back until I was in high school, when we moved to a house right down the road. I first started working in the restaurant when I was 15; all of us children did. It was expected. I was a waitress.

My father always said, “The customer comes first.” I can still hear him telling me that no matter what you do, you need to get the best quality of everything. He wasn’t about making a killing. He wanted to make the people of Kaua‘i happy. My father treated everybody as family. If someone needed help, he was always there to help them. He always used to say, “Attitude is free.”

People keep coming back because of our menu. It’s pretty big and we have a number of specials every day, things like beef stew, roast pork and stuffed cabbage. We also have some Pacific Rim items like a seared ahi salad and macadamia nut chicken. So even if someone were to come in every day, they could get something different.

Our oldest regular customer is 94 years old. We’ve seen a lot of kids come here as babies and now they’re adults coming in with their own kids. Oh, you feel old, but it’s nice to see.

We are very thankful for the loyalty from our customers, and our employees, too. We had one lady who was an original Barbecue Inn worker. She worked here for more than 50 years, from when my grandfather opened the restaurant. It’s important to us to continue providing jobs for people, especially as they get older, if they still want to work.

I hope that 20 years from now the restaurant will still be able to stay like this, so that people will still have it, because that’s why we’re here.

I have to excuse myself now. I’ve gotta go make today’s pies.

Lihue Barbecue Inn
2982 Kress St., Lihu‘e 245-2921

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