When Fred Atkins visited the Kilohana property over three decades ago, he knew it would take a tremendous amount of work to spruce up the once 36-acre plantation estate.
“When I first drove up here to look at the place, the whole front lawn was pasture,” said Atkins, Kilohana general partner. “Our concept was to renovate the home, bring the house back, and create different shops — very similar to today — in different rooms of the bedrooms.”
Thirty years later, Kilohana has expanded to 11 shops, a plantation-style railway with train tours, a long-standing restaurant, various fruit tree orchards and a luau on 104 acres of property.
“Everything was based on great food, great service, aloha spirit, good times. That’s what I think the staff and management represents,” said Dickie Chang, Kilohana sales and marketing director. “It’s become an institution for the kamaaiana and the visitors.”
Kilohana, which means “not to be surpassed” in Hawaiian, is a 16,000-square-foot plantation home built by Gaylord Wicox in 1935.
For Atkins, the original business model for Kilohana was to house a restaurant and use the estate for private conventions and parties.
“That sustained Kilohana for the first 15 years,” he said. “So much has happened since the time we opened up. What we really thought was a core business: We had tents and parties all the time. We had 400, 600, 800 people. It was a good problem to have.”
On top of that, Atkins brought in Wally Wallace to open up Gaylord’s restaurant.
“Gaylord’s was a major anchor,” he said. “Once Wally opened for dinner, he wanted to put all his efforts into it.”
With Gaylord’s the main attraction, Kilohana prospered until Hurricane Iniki hit the island in 1992, forcing Atkins to close the plantation estate for a year.
“When we opened up, the island was still reeling economically,” he said. “It really took us four to five years. Even now, we’re just about at the numbers that we were doing in 1992 for visitors coming in.”
In order to grow, Atkins changed the business model in 2003 and expanded to create an agriculture park behind the mansion.
“We couldn’t rely on conventions,” he said. “We wanted to represent what the smaller farmers were doing in place of sugar.”
Around the same time, Kilohana started laying the track for train tours.
“When we started building the train, we had no clue that we’d be getting 800 people three times a week from the (cruise) ship,” he said.
With expansion, also came Kilohana’s luau that opened eight months after the train tours went into operation. The luau is open two days a week in the summer and is sold out for 750 people each time, Atkins said.
“Kilohana hasn’t been one thing that made it successful. Local people have embraced it,” he said. “When we had to change gears and expand, each entity made it work.”
For Atkins, Kilohana is a glimpse of Kauai’s past, but now the plantation estate is also a glimpse to the island’s future.
“All those little things is what we’re celebrating 30 years later,” he said. “It’s stronger than it has ever been. “Even though we’re so many different entities, everyone (employees, kamaaina, visitors) feels like they’re apart of the Kilohana experience.”