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Superstar company in our midst

By Staff | Mar 31, 2011

Workers make poi at Old Lahaina Luau. Photo by Norm Bezane.

LAHAINA — Chances are good that when a visitor asks a local about the best luau, the answer will come back, “Old Lahaina Luau.” Though all others are enjoyable and fun, Old Lahaina to many stands in a class by itself in quality and contributions to the community.

Talk story with lead partner Michael Moore, and it is quickly apparent that this culturally significant, enormously popular enterprise represents perhaps this side’s most successful homegrown business created since Maui became a Mecca for tourists. In fact, it now is a multimillion dollar business that employs a third more people than Maui Land & Pineapple Co. Inc.

Fortune magazine each year lists the most admired and best companies to work for. It is no exaggeration to say that the company named Hoaloha Na Eha (meaning four friends) might just make one of the lists.

The luau’s long journey began almost 25 years ago when Oregon-born Michael Moore and accountant Robert Aguiar were working for the Ocean Activity Center. Management of the 505 Front Street center suggested the tourist company start a luau.

Moore, their marketing manager, was intrigued, thinking it would be nice to be an evening bartender there. Moore was used to steering visitors to luaus. “I told people luaus were kind of corny; the food is not that great, but in you are in Hawaii so do it.

Three months after the luau opened, Ocean Center backed out, thinking the luau did not have much potential. Moore, Aguiar, Kevin Butler and Tim Moore thought otherwise.

They raised funds and birthed what has become the most authentic luau in the islands. No fire dancing either, for this would be a true Hawaiian luau. (Fire dancing is a Polynesian tradition but not Hawaiian.)

Not everyone was impressed. In the early years after its founding along the shoreline at 505 Front Street, a Honolulu critic called it the worst luau in the islands. In typical Oahu-is-the-center-of-the universe fashion, the critic claimed the best one was at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

He said that luau on Oahu was best because you could sip a great cabernet with a view of Diamond Head — a measuring stick of dubious merit, Moore noted.

“At first, the review pretty much devastated us. We really loved what we were doing, and it was a lot of fun. After a few days of being distressed, we said, ‘Let’s take this review as a template for change to the luau.’ We added flower leis, upgraded all the food — we really looked at every aspect of what we did, including the way we greeted people. We made it more Hawaiian and personal,” Moore said.

“We felt there was a need to present Hawaiian music in a really respectful way that honored the culture — that didn’t make fun of it. People were making fun of poi. Poi is a staple of the Hawaiian diet. You cannot make fun of poi.

What Hoaloha Na Eha did over the years, as Moore puts it, was “raise the bar of what a luau could be. These were mostly hotel functions. We visited every commercial luau in the state. We wanted to create something that honored the culture. We did that very well for 12 years at 505 Front Street,” he continued.

“And then we wanted to build an outdoor culture theater. Hoaloha Na Eha added a new venue ocean side from Lahaina Cannery Mall. The spacious grounds provided for a place for culture demonstrations before the feast and hula show.

Hoaloha Na Eha was also lucky to acquire a kitchen at an adjoining pizza restaurant that had closed. There it could prepare luau meals featuring Hawaiian and American fare. The compny also opened Aloha Mixed Plate, which quickly a popular gathering spot for locals.

Nearly 25 years after the start of a luau “that didn’t have much potential, ” Old Lahaina Luau welcomed 400 guests a night, seven days a week during peak tourist times in 2008. That’s close to an amazing 10,000 guests a month.

So why should Hoaloha Na Eha be admired? And what have its creative minds been cooking up since. Time once again for a “Hana Ho” on a subject too big for one column.

Columnist’s Notebook: A second edition of “Voices of Maui” will be out soon. Same content, but with a new cover and more accurate rendering of Hawaiian words.