Kauaians at top of their hotel games

LIHU’E — Possibly for the first time in the history of the awards program, two Kaua’i hospitality-industry professionals have won coveted Hawai’i Hotel & Lodging Association employee of the year awards.

Martina “Aunty Tina” Brun, just retired from the Sheraton Kauai Resort in Po’ipu, is the Food & Beverage Person of the Year, and Craig Matsuoka of the Kaua’i Marriott Resort & Beach Club is the Engineering/Maintenance Person of the Year.

Brun figures she won one of the Na Po’e Pa’ahana (The Hard-Working People) awards because of her community service inside and outside the hotel, while Matsuoka thinks he got the nod because of his long days and nights wrestling with a caved-in drainage system that swallowed most of the visitor parking lot near the porte cochere.

Brun said 10 people from the Sheraton Kauai Resort attended the awards luncheon, including fellow nominees Conrad Ramos (engineering), Mely Pascua (housekeeping) and Cynthia Nagao (manager).

Brun, 64, had been at the hotel since 1973, through two hurricanes and re-builds, and was a week into her retirement when the awards banquet was held.

This nomination was her third. She figures either Elle Gorman in human resources, or Owen Hoff, the dining-room manager, nominated her, “’cause I work a lot with him.”

She has worked for several different general managers and many different dining-room managers over her 32 years as a waitress at the resort, but always looked forward to going to work. “I liked working for that hotel,” with good pay, good benefits, and lifelong friendships formed with both co-workers and visitors, she said.

“It was a hard decision to say I was going to retire,” said Brun. Even when she was taking the last of six weeks of vacation time before officially retiring, her manager would call her at home and ask her if she wanted to work. She didn’t go those times.

Her co-workers always ask her when she’s going to come back to work when they see her on the property or elsewhere on the South Shore.

It was Todd Oldham, food and beverage director, who told Brun she was one of the three finalists before they all ventured to Waikiki for the luncheon.

“I didn’t think I would win,” but was happy to be nominated, she said.

Among her regular extracurricular chores (she’s working now on Leilani Rivera Bond’s ho’ike, as her grandchildren dance for the halau), she always coordinated the hotel’s Easter egg hunt, worked as a volunteer at the Koloa Plantation Days ho’olaule’a at the hotel, coordinated the employee picnic, and always participated in the annual Visitor Industry Charity Walk.

She still keeps score at senior softball games, and graduated from running one booth at the Kaua’i Hospice Fourth of July fund-raiser to running three booths.

Several of her family members benefited from hospice care, she said.

She also helps out with various fund-raising softball tournaments, either in the scorer’s booth or in the food booth.

If visitors wanted lei, she would pick flowers from her yard or elsewhere, and make and present the lei. One visiting couple expressed to Brun their disappointment with no having flowers in their room when they checked in, and Brun quickly remedied that concern, she said.

Her husband of nearly 47 years, Joe Brun, oftentimes went to pick coconuts for visitors, she said.

As if her outside-of-work commitments weren’t enough while she was still working, she feels she can do even more now that she’s retired, she said.

“I haven’t had time to really enjoy my retirement,” said Brun, who added that she wants to do more volunteer work at St. Raphael’s Catholic Church in Koloa, where she is a longtime member.

She and her husband manage to travel regularly, so it’s likely that will factor into her retirement plans as well, she said.

Recipients of the HHLA awards are selected based on nominations submitted by supervisors and co-workers, and are judged on the basis of outstanding and exceptional service to hotel guests, co-workers and the community, according to an HHLA press release.

This year’s was the 16th annual luncheon.

Kaua’i finalists included Leilani Cabais, Princeville Resort, third place in the Concierge of the Year category; and Charlie Ortal of the Princeville Resort (second place) and Richard Talarico (third place) of the Kaua’i Marriott Resort & Beach Club, in the category of Security Officer of the Year.

When they called the food and beverage finalists to the stage, in alphabetical order, Brun was first on stage. After the honorable mention winners had been named, it was down to the final three.

When she heard the name of the second-place finisher and it wasn’t hers, she knew she won, and jumped up and down on the stage.

“I said, ‘all right, I won.'” At the Sheraton Kauai table, all were also jumping up and down in celebration as well, she recalled.

“It was really an honor, to see all those people there.”

The Sheraton Kauai table was next to the Kaua’i Marriott Resort & Beach Club table, where Matsuoka was sitting. When Brun went to the stage, she wished him good luck, and asked him why his parents didn’t accompany him to the ceremony, she said.

Brun is the first Sheraton Kauai Resort employee to ever win first place in the awards program, she said.

“It was icing on the cake.” The award came after she celebrated two retirement parties with two different sets of friends and loved ones. Co-workers held one for her at Kukui’ula Small Boat Harbor, and family members gathered at Hanamaulu Restaurant.

Both parties were good fun, and she’ll miss her co-workers, she said. “It’s a nice hotel to work for,” she said.

While the individual award is hers, she quickly credits family members for their necessary support. “They supported me in everything.”

When her five children, Peter, Paul, Polly, Penny and Patti, were in school and on youth sports teams, they always volunteered their mom to help, she said.

Now, she’ll turn the tables. “It’s payback time.”

Seriously, volunteerism is in her blood, and in her husband’s and children’s blood, too. “They say to me, don’t you know what ‘N-O’ means? I never heard of that word,” she said.

“In everything, you have to support your kids. It makes a difference. My mom died when I was 7 years old,” and there was nobody there to support her, she said.

The Bruns live in Koloa, and have six grandchildren.

Matsuoka, a 41-year-old bachelor who lives in Lihu’e, is a maintenance mechanic at the Kaua’i Marriott Resort & Beach Club in Lihu’e, and has been with the resort for two years after many years at what is now the Kauai Beach Hotel & Resort at Nukoli’i.

He is responsible for maintenance and repair of the air-conditioning and refrigeration systems at the resort, and was called into work at 2 a.m. the day torrential rains overwhelmed drainage systems buried under the resort’s parking lots, causing a cave-in that swallowed at least one rental car.

One of the sinkholes obliterated the entire electricity, phone, gas, cable, computer, fire and security systems, as well as water and sewer lines, and associates including Matsuoka worked around the clock to route temporary lines to and from the resort.

Simon Jongert, who retired as general manager of the Kaua’i Marriott Resort & Beach Club, nominated Matsuoka, calling him a “flawless, modest individual that is considered precious and invaluable to the success of our engineering department.

“Craig provided critical know-how and leadership in times of crisis,” said Jongert.

There were long days and long nights of pulling temporary electric, phone, water and data lines “just to keep the hotel open,” Matsuoka said.

The Kaua’i High School graduate is the son of Diane and Wayne Matsuoka, and enjoys his co-workers and the fact that he does something different every day at work, he said.

He admitted to feelings of disbelief when Lynne Nagaoka told him he was one of the three finalists in the statewide competition, he said.

Matsuoka figured he would take the free trip to Honolulu, go and have lunch, then come back to Kaua’i, after which he would probably end up going back to work.

“I never thought this would happen,” said Matsuoka, who admits he doesn’t like the attention that the award brought him. The associates in his department all work hard, and deserve the award, he said.

“They all deserve something like that. I guess I was just fortunate that they picked me.

“I always look forward to coming to work. The fellow associates” is what he likes most about his job. “Everybody is good to work with. Everybody helps everybody out,” said Matsuoka.

There was no jumping up and down on stage for the humble, soft-spoken Matsuoka, who said he enjoyed getting to know the fellow nominees better as a result of the trip.

There were 10 at his table, including Jongert.

The first day back to work after winning the award, many of his fellow associates came and congratulated him, he said.

He holds an associate’s degree in HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) from Kapi’oilani Community College on O’ahu, and is also “expertly skilled as an electrician, plumber, laundry mechanic, kitchen mechanic and automotive mechanic, to name a few,” Jongert wrote in his nomination paperwork.

Matsuoka won $250 and a koa box.

Joe Brun was Matsuoka’s youth baseball coach.

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