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Same pizza, new restaurant name for Jerry Kunitomo

By Staff | Jan 21, 2010

Jerry Kunitomo shows off his new Lahaina Pizza Company sign.

LAHAINA— After 15 years in business, Jerry Kunitomo is separating from the BJ’s Chicago Pizzeria corporation and launching Lahaina Pizza Company at the same Front Street location.

Restaurant regulars and community groups will be happy to learn that the move is essentially a name change.

“Lahaina Pizza Company will continue that tradition of giving back to the Maui community,” said Kunitomo.

“I plan on keeping the menu pretty much the same, so our regulars know that only the name has changed.”

Some new menu items will be introduced this summer.

“Not having to adhere to certain company specs will also give me the freedom to enhance some of our menu standards,” he explained.

Kunitomo, 49, graduated from Kamehameha Schools’ Kapalama Campus in 1978 and spent the first summer and fall working on the family boat fishing for ahi and holding down two restaurant jobs as a busboy in Kona.

In January 1979, he moved to Oahu and attended Kapiolani Community College.

“That summer, I decided it was time to get serious and went off to California to study architecture,” Kunitomo recalled. “While in school, I worked as a busboy at a fine dining restaurant in Huntington Beach. Things moved quickly there.”

Within two years, Kunitomo progressed to waiter, wine steward, kitchen manager and dining room manager.

After four years, he joined a franchise group opening a new restaurant chain called Tony Romas. Within four years, Kunitomo became a partner at a location in Mission Viejo, California.

“While there, I was asked to play in a golf tournament by the area manager for Budweiser, Jack Corcoran. It turned out to be a set-up,” Kunitomo said.

The owner of BJ’s had approached Jack to find them a partner for a Maui location they were looking at. Two weeks later, I flew to Maui to check things out and was hooked. I decided this is where I wanted to raise my family, and a deal was made.”

They opened BJ’s Chicago Pizzeria in June 1994 — the same week as Planet Hollywood and Hula Grill launched in West Maui — upstairs at 730 Front St., the former home of the legendary Blue Max club.

“Being a virtual unknown, it was tough to get applicants, but we made it through,” Kunitomo said.

“That first year, I realized, even though BJ’s was well-recognized in Orange County, it had no branding here. So I decided to focus on community events where we could give back and also get our product sampled,” he continued.

“That is when we got our legs under us. The committee work developed into landmark programs and events. Soon enough, BJ’s had earned its place on Front Street.”

Volunteering in the community, Kunitomo helped LahainaTown Action Committee develop “A Taste of Lahaina and the Best of Island Music,” co-founded LAC’s International Festival of Canoes, served as board president for the Friends of Moku‘ula and West Maui Little League Baseball and rewarded students in local schools with pizza days, including the annual Lahaina Intermediate School Beach Bash.

In 2000 the company went public, and the Lahaina restaurant became partners with a very big company. BJ’s has expanded to 100 locations across the country, with stores averaging near 9,000 square feet and featuring more than 100 menu items and their own beer line.

“I wanted to keep my store on ‘scratch’ recipes featuring our signature pizzas and salads. Our pizza is unique in a heavily competitive market segment. It’s our core product, and it has served us well,” Kunitomo commented.

“The consistency has allowed me to get out and do more community work.”

Almost half of the staff has been with Kunitomo for over ten years. “I am fortunate to have such great team members, and I know I have a responsibility to them and their families,” he said.

Kunitomo and his wife, Morgan, have four children.

Given the bad economy and business turnover, Jerry wants the community to know about his restaurant’s name change.

“We just changed one sign on the street, and the phone rang that night asking if we had closed,” he said.

For his business and community track record, he has been honored as “Business Man of the Year” and “Business of the Year” by Lahaina Rotary Club. Other honors include LahainaTown Action Committee’s Kokua Award, Lahaina Intermediate School’s Kokua Award, American Express and Nation’s Restaurant News Neighborhood Business Award, and “Man of the Year” by the Lahaina News’ Up Front Lahaina columnist.

Jerry is proud to be working in Lahaina and looks forward to the future.

“It is a privilege to be a part of the Lahaina heritage. We will continue to earn our place. To the people of Maui and our loyal part-time guests, thank you for 15 fantastic years, and I look forward to another 15 that are even better,” he concluded.