LAWAI — The family-owned and -operated Kiawe Roots is back open for takeout with a new Lawai location, after closing its Kukui‘ula location in December.
“We were going to scrap this whole business. We thought we were going to be done,” said co-owner Tricia Ruiz.
According to Ruiz, the restaurant closed because they could not come to terms with their landlord for a lease agreement.
Despite the pandemic and tourism restrictions, the business was doing well. Popular with locals looking for take-out options, closing the restaurant was especially difficult.
“It was a hard blow to us. It was kind of like we were forced to close,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz co-owns the store with her husband, Mark Ruiz Jr. and his cousin, Rodney Baptiste.
One of the most difficult parts of closing last year was telling their employees, most of whom are family members.
“It was hard to tell them that they don’t have a job,” Ruiz Jr. said.
Though being a family business made layoffs hard, it also made bouncing back easier.
“We have not felt the labor shortage here because all our employees that we had previously all want to come back and work,” said Baptiste.
Family is embedded in every aspect of the restaurant, from the name and menu, to the chefs who prepare the food.
“Kiawe is mesquite in Hawaiian. We smoke all our meats with kiawe. Growing up, we (had) family gatherings and barbecues. This is our rendition of homestyle barbecue, but at a more elevated level,” Ruiz said. “A lot of the dishes are inspired by our culinary heritage because between us, we are a mix of so many cultures.”
The family has Hawaiian, Filipino, Japanese, Puerto Rican and Portuguese roots which the co-owners tried to bring to the Kiawe Roots menu.
“Hawaii itself is already a melting pot of cultures. And that’s what we grew up with. A different style, food and flavors. And that’s what we bring,” Ruiz said.
Baptiste grew up cooking with his grandfather who helped inspire him to become a chef and inspired the recipe for the menu item Gandpa’s Chili, which is served over white rice and with fresh tomatoes.
“I get goosebumps thinking (about cooking with our grandfather). He was the glue that held our family together with his food and with his cooking. He always said, ‘It’s easy to be rich, but to share that wealth with food brings people together,’” said Baptiste. “I learned a lot from him through cooking.”
The restaurant is promoting the hashtag #knowyourroots, which doesn’t just refer to knowing where your food comes from.
“Roots (means) our heritage. Wherever we go, we never want to forget that is who we are. That is what built us to where we are today,” Ruiz said.
The restaurant will see its grand re-opening later this month, on Nov. 30, but is currently open for take-out. Kiawe Roots is located at 2-3687 Kaumuali‘i Highway, in Lawai.