Transforming a Landmark
The economy and a change in the way people eat prompted the Talvi family to close the venerable Gaylord’s and reopen with a new name and approach
Serving dishes prepared with more than 90 percent local ingredients, 22 Degrees North restaurant owner Russ Talvi says he is trying in my small way not to do any harm to the planet.
Helping to save the earth one breadfruit at a time, Talvi is committed to using as many local resources as possible and reducing the amount of waste his Lihu’e enterprise produces.
“By doing the right thing – buying produce from our neighbors and growing our own food on property – we’re supporting the local economy, eating healthier and saving fossil fuels for a better earth,” he says proudly one morning before the lunch crowd descends upon what was formerly Gaylord’s restaurant at Kilohana Plantation.
Growing up in Alaska in a “semi-subsistence” lifestyle, “most of our protein came from the river or the land,” says Talvi, who bought into the family business, Gaylord’s, in 1999. “Working in the restaurant industry for 20 years, I began to see the value in that.”
This concept which Talvi says he feels in his heart most dearly, is portrayed throughout 22 Degrees North, where locally raised meat is used and produce is harvested from a small, two-acre plot at Kilohana or purchased from on-island farmers.
“Gaylord’s was kind of your parents’ restaurant,” says Talvi, who moved to Kaua’i from Alaska in the ’90s and always wanted to own a restaurant. The dining establishment didn’t really have a niche, which was exactly why he chose to re-brand and reposition the business.
“What we knew was we wanted to be about fresh, local ingredients,” he says regarding Gaylord’s transition to 22 Degrees North – Kaua’i’s latitude on a map.
It is an idea he first put into practice in 2002, when he opened the Hukilau Lanai in Kapa’a, bringing “Kaua’i Fresh” cuisine to the island.
Knowing where your food comes from and how it’s taken care of is vital, says Talvi, who has since sold Hukilau Lanai.
“We are building on the Kaua’i Fresh cuisine because we saw how well-received and how successful it was,” he says. “We saw how much visitors and residents liked to know the products were coming from here.”
Another reason for the restaurant’s makeover was financial.
In 2006 and 2007, there were a number of national trends in the food and beverage industry, including fine dining and special-occasion restaurants such as Gaylord’s being visited less frequently.
“That was kind of the start of the whole economic downturn, and it was also when people’s dining habits changed,” he says. “People didn’t want to make reservations necessarily and they didn’t want to dress up. They didn’t want the formal experience; they just wanted good food value.
“Because of the visitors over all those years, we could successfully operate. But as the visitor traffic to Kaua’i slowed down three years ago, it was kind of that double-whammy of the national trend toward casual dining, and the visitor industry on Kaua’i slowing down.”
So Talvi pulled his locavore – those who eat locally produced food – passion and his business smarts together to create a new enterprise to which not only visitors would be drawn, but residents as well.
Gaylord’s was a “very respected restaurant,” says 22 Degrees North general manager Todd Oldham. “But it was clear that we weren’t gaining any new fans.”
Developing a farm-to-table business concept with Talvi has been a pretty unique experience that Oldham says he is pleased to be part of, even if it is a lot harder.
For instance, menus have to be altered on a daily basis depending on what is in season, and recipes are “whimsical,” says 22 Degrees North chef de cuisine Aaron Leikam.
But limiting the detrimental impact on the environment and keeping money circulating within the local economy makes it all worthwhile, he says.
And Talvi doesn’t stop with food when it comes to sustainability.
“We looked at all of our waste streams too,” he says.
Everything – from the water glasses cut from old wine bottles to the zinc tabletops and cleverly crafted coasters made from used cardboard boxes – was created with the intention of diverting trash from the Kekaha landfill.
With a degree in biology that he has “never used professionally,” Talvi says it actually helped him comprehend the importance of creating a more viable environment.
“It’s the whole understanding of ecosystems and ecology,” he says.
Though he was originally reluctant to change a “brand we had invested a lot in and was well-known both in good and bad ways,” Talvi says he loves what 22 Degrees North has become.
“We’re really conscious of not being Gaylord’s and conscious about our place in the world,” he adds.
“It’s been a good ride,” he says of the restaurant, which officially opened in July. “We’ve learned a lot. We’re still gaining momentum – not doing the levels of business that we want to be doing, but pretty much any restaurant on Kaua’i could say that today. And whenever you’re doing something that isn’t tried and true, it’s like being pioneers of sorts.”
Some of his inspiration to lead the sustainable restaurant movement on Kaua’i comes from his four children.
“Children know way more about what we’re doing and how it affects the earth,” he says about his family, which is currently residing in Alaska where he also owns a business and to which he frequently travels.
“I’m pretty happy doing what I’m doing,” says Talvi, who was senior vice president of resort operations at Kaua’i Lagoons before he entered the island’s food and beverage industry.
Less than a century ago, this is the way people consumed their meals, he says. “That’s what people ate and how they lived. You ate what was available locally.”
It’s really a matter of whether people will make the choice to eat what the land provides.
“Are people willing to eat that way?” he asks. “Does ‘ulu make better potatoes au gratin?”
Because, he adds, if we were alone tomorrow without any ships bringing in food, we’d be in trouble.
And since “we’re going that direction in several ways … I want to make sure everyone knows about us,” Talvi says. “If they do and check it out, they’ll be really pleased about what we’re doing here. We’re doing the same thing, but even better now.”
Call 245-9593 or visit www.22northkauai.com for more information.