The burger orders kept coming Tuesday morning.
Old Fashioned. Teriyaki. Blue Cheese. Nui-Nui. Duane’s Special.
Robert McNamara, as he’s been doing for 24 years, cooked them as fast as he could. Beside him, Sunny Jo Kauanui, as she has for five years, added the toppings — onions, lettuce, pineapple, sprouts — and sliced the burgers in half.
But it wasn’t quite fast enough to keep up with the long and growing line of customers waiting in front of Duane’s Ono Char-Burger in Anahola.
“Everybody always says our burgers are the best,” Kauanui said as she glanced up. “We’re going to miss our job. We love it here. Today is a sad day, but it’s so busy, we gotta keep everybody satisfied. The big orders on tickets keep coming.”
As she said that, cashier Maile Freitas slapped another ticket on the order wheel, while Teliipioohaililani Pa sliced cheese and hurried to do whatever needed doing.
Each employee hustled as they turned out burgers, sandwiches, shakes, fries and onion rings for the crowd — just a few more days before this iconic burger joint, owned and operated by Leilani and Robert “Rip” Cord since 1988, closes its doors on Thursday.
“I love working here,” said Freitas, a three-year employee.
Asked what she enjoyed most, Freitas paused, then said, “Helping the customers, getting what they need — just working here.”
Out front, drivers turned off Kuhio Highway, looking for spaces to park near the famous red building with white trim. Finding none, they began pulling off to the side of the highway, stopping in front of a No Parking sign.
Once in line, people talked, stared at cell phones and leaned against posts as they waited some 30 minutes to order on the hot, sunny morning.
No one minded.
Sisters Christine Beltran and Ioana Ponce were among them. They grew up in the area and stopped often at Duane’s Ono Char-Burger, even back in the days when it was owned by Duane Horka before the Cords bought it from him.
Their family liked to grab lunch before swimming and today, they still love the convenience of swinging in for a quick meal. And they still love the homemade burgers and chocolate Ono-shakes and the Keiki Burger and the Keiki Chicken Strips and the fries for the kids
When they heard it was closing, it was a surprise — and a disappointment.
“I was like, ‘No,’” said Beltran, who lives in Anahola.
Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami was there, too, with Managing Director Michael Dahilig, waiting their turn to order and to present a proclamation, “Burger Heroes Day,” to the owners and staff “for providing the community of Kauai and its visitors with delicious burgers and warm aloha for over 30 years.”
It read, in part, “WHEREAS, its menu has remained simple and mainly unchanged for over three decades — among of which include its famous Teriyaki Burger, Ono Burger, Duane’s Special, and side of fries — satisfying the cravings of both locals and visitors from near and far.”
Kawakami said he has only good memories of Duane’s Ono Char-Burger, from going there with his parents, his wife and his kids.
But it’s also about more than memories, he added.
“I think it’s almost to the point where many years from now, when somebody is digging up fossils and artifacts, they’re going to find Ono-Char Burger is in our DNA, it’s in our bones,” he said, laughing.
The mayor, by the way, ordered his staple, Teriyaki cheddar with onions, side of blue cheese, rings and fries, along with more burgers for staff back at the office.
While he’s sad to see it close, he understands the challenges of operating a family business.
“We just came here to say thank you more so than anything else,” the mayor said.
Dahilig went with the Old Fashioned burger of cheddar, onion, sprouts on a kaiser roll.
“Keep it simple,” he said.
Ryan Sanica turned from the window with a burger, sandwich and shake.
“When I heard it was shutting down, yeah, I had to come a last time. Had to,” he said. “By far, one of the best burgers around.”
Reached at his home, Robert “Rip” Cord said he and his wife have been trying to sell Duane’s Ono Char-Burger for more and a year.
“Nobody wanted it,” he said.
While he hopes to find a buyer, he said it reached a point where they could no longer keep up with the demands to own and operate it.
“I ain’t no kid no more, neither is the wife,” he said.
While finding good, reliable workers proved difficult, he praised his long-time staffers, including McNamara, Kauanui and Freitas.
“They’re great,” he said.
Cord was a truck driver, his 40th birthday on the horizon, and was looking for another career before visiting Kauai on vacation more than three decades ago.
Both Ono Char-Burger, and Ono Family Restaurant, were for sale.
He opted for the smaller burger operation.
While it’s been good and they’ve done well, it’s time to call it a day, the 70-year-old said. His health isn’t what it used to be, he added.
”I can’t stand there and do the job no more. It’s a young person’s game,” Cord said. “It really is. You need some enthusiasm. You need some youth.”
Kauanui said the Cords have been wonderful bosses and were good to their employees. She’ll miss working for them and miss the spirited, ohana-oriented atmosphere at Duane’s Ono Char-Burger.
Tuesday was her last day, along with McNamara’s.
“We’re saddened right now,” she said.
McNamara stood tall as he proudly manned the broiler, flipping burger patties as they sizzled away.
“You gotta move on,” he said.
Customers, too, will move on, but they’ll miss this place.
Shawn Valmoka said it was always his first stop when he was headed to the North Shore. He referred to Duane’s as “just a small hole in the wall” with great food and friendly service.
The Old Fashioned, the Teriyaki, the Blue Cheese burgers were favorites, which is pretty much what he ordered Tuesday.
“One of everything,” he said, smiling.