Aloha, Goodbye? Is it Really the End? — Betty Tom

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From the outside, Betty’s house in Monterey Park, Calif. stands out vividly on her street. Bright turquoise — warm and inviting, like her restaurant Aloha Food Factory, that’s painted splashy blue with colorful trim. A former schoolteacher, she opened the restaurant in 1994, when her three kids were old enough to help run the business. Betty invited me into her home and we sat at her dining table. Her husband Ernie moved around quietly in the background while I recorded our conversation. “What made you open the restaurant?” I asked. She told me that if she hadn’t grown up in restaurants, she wouldn’t have attempted it — “It’s hard work.”

I worked in a restaurant since I was able to stand up to walk and cook. I was cooking at a very young age, wanting to follow my mom and dad, to know everything and to imitate what they were doing. I was seven years old washing rice and by 12 years old I could run my parents’ café by myself. When my mom got sick, I was the chef in the back. That’s my background, which is why it made sense to open a restaurant. My brothers thought I was crazy. They said, “No way. It’s too much stress. Don’t do it”. I did it and I’ve loved it ever since. I love what I do. I think it shows.

Sadly, a big sign was staked outside her restaurant that read, “Notice of Public Hearing: Planning Permit”. The city was going to convert the site into a carwash. The original landlord had passed away and his children wanted $2M for both Betty’s restaurant and the one adjacent to it, but she and her husband didn’t want to take on a second restaurant by themselves at their age. In August of 2020, tech savvy and longtime regulars James Kuang and Phu Luong entered into partnership with Betty, picking up 2/3 of the business. They ran social media campaigns for her eatery and promoted an online delivery system when the pandemic prevented customers from dining indoors.

Aloha Food Factory was a casual spot that shuttered briefly during the pandemic and reopened two months later under new management. A visible change since the  pandemic was the big sign that hung from the outdoor patio. The indoor dining area was minimal for social distancing, but the same overflow of weekend traffic was still there. Wear and tear gave the space the patina of an old leather couch; a place that was reliably comfortable. I told Betty how much I enjoyed the relaxed bungalow vibe.

That’s what we wanted; we wanted the ohana spirit there. When I had my boys, I decided to be a part-time worker and a full-time mom. That’s been my focus, but I always got lured into doing things. I think it’s because I’m friendly, outgoing and people feel comfortable with me. I want to treat family like friends and friends like family. I’ve tried to make the restaurant that way too. When I started out, I was influenced by my Hawaiian friends. Plus, my mom and dad were chefs, they owned two restaurants that were Cantonese-American, which is a style of cooking similar to some of the original recipes from Hawaii that came from the Cantonese-Chinese. It’s very easy to transition to Hawaiian with that. It’s just a little tweak here and there. Every time somebody tried my food, they’d say, “You need to open a restaurant, you need to share your food.” When you share your food, it is part of your essence, part of your heart. When somebody tastes your food, it not only fills their stomach, but gives them satisfaction through the love that’s put in. You get that when you eat your mom’s cooking. Nobody cooks like your mom. Doesn’t matter how good or bad a cook she is because that’s what you’re used to. It’s why everybody goes home for mom’s cooking — more than anything else, the love, but also the cooking.

Up until a couple of years ago, Betty bussed the tables herself and called people to their tables. Aloha Food Factory’s menu is affordable, the dishes have a big heaping of fluffy white rice, accompanied by your choice of hamburger or stewed meats: Loco Moco, Lau Lau, Kalua Pig, among others, along with eggs cooked in whatever style you want. Their pancakes come with a not-too-sweet, cold, creamy custard and macadamia nuts. This special sweet treat tops off the restaurant’s all-day breakfast menu. Betty shared the story of sourcing her famous pancakes.

A lot of the workers told me, “Auntie, you need to make macadamia nut pancakes.” This investigation paid for my trip to Hawaii on my 60th birthday. Me, my daughter, my sister. It was our quest to research saimin (noodles) and macadamia nut pancakes. A little hole in the wall restaurant where we waited half an hour for the food. When the macadamia pancake came out, my daughter and I looked at each other, “Is that all it is?” Only because my father’s a baker. I’ve had stuff like that all my life. 99% of the time, if it’s something that I eat, I can duplicate it for 1/3 the price, sometimes less. There are a few things, because I don’t know the spices, that I can’t.

Betty was meticulous about preventing waste and reducing cost. She studied math in college and taught it too. Her calculations for her business included how much of each ingredient to buy and how many dishes the same ingredients were consumed in. She performed costing exercises out loud, telling me, “On weekends, there could be 10 orders up on the board, 10 people calling and then 10 people online. A chow mein order takes up two burner spaces.” As a result, the restaurant trimmed their menu to economize their inventory.

Betty rattled off several jobs from her past, “I was a Tupperware Manager for 15 years; I had my own jewelry business; I was director of health and skin. Once you’re a top salesperson, people try to lure you to their company.” These experiences prepared her for her big undertaking. When Betty’s daughter was born, she started selling cars to have a flexible enough schedule to care for her child, but she wasn’t making the same kind of money she did teaching. When her daughter was six, Betty was ready to teach again. She landed a job with LA Unified, assigned to South Central LA. She was excited to start because it was where she’d grown up. At the same time, her husband Ernie wanted to quit his job in accounting and asked Betty to finally open the restaurant she’d been talking about. Betty knew that if she took this road, she would never go back to teaching.

The first location she found for a restaurant cost her $11,000 in sunk costs. When her contractor was ready to put in doors and windows, she realized she didn’t have a lease. She pressed for her lease and the landlord finally filled in the blanks of a generic lease agreement, but Betty and her lawyer friend realized it was 25% more than what they originally agreed to. The landlord wouldn’t come down on price and Betty started looking at other properties. She eventually found what she wanted but they had to do a major overhaul. When Betty didn’t think things could get worse, a contractor walked away from the project. Despite the ongoing recession, her church friend, who was a contractor himself, stepped in to finish the job. A couple hundred people came to the restaurant’s grand opening. They were Betty’s friends and family. Only then did her husband realize — their business was going to make it! I asked, “You took it all from savings? You didn’t have any investors at that time?”

All from savings. No loans, nothing. Everything was cash. At one point, my husband says, “I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m serious.” I go, “What did I tell you? If you do this, I’m all in. There’s no turning back.” After a couple months of doing it, he realized how much work it was. Then he really hated it. He told my best friends, my family, “Betty is crazy. She’s going to lose everything. We’re going to lose our house!” I said, “Do you think I would let that happen?” You’re going to lose money before you make money at a restaurant. For a well-known restaurant to open, they might make money right away, but not us — one from scratch, that nobody knew. Nobody even knew what Hawaiian food was.

My next question, “How long did it take for you to gain financial security from this business and what advice would you give to other women looking to start their own business?”

I was there from day one because I knew what I was capable of. I knew that I would be a dishwasher, cook, whatever I needed to make it a success. Think about it: to pay somebody $15 an hour, 40 hours a week. If you could do most of it, that’s profit for you. You cannot be a prima donna. Be outgoing and engage with the customers, so they feel welcome. If you have the kind personality where you don’t want to talk to anybody, then maybe this is not the business for you. You have to weigh all those different things. Am I willing to put in the time and effort? Am I warm and welcoming? Can I also tell people, “This is the way I want to do it,” and be firm in my commitment? That’s the other thing because you’re dealing with so many personalities; there’s always conflict when you’re in the kitchen. It’s so hot, tempers run high. If something is wrong, where’s the bottom line?

“Right here,” she looks at me dead in the eye and gestures with her hand.

I think for those women, having a support system will make it a whole lot easier. I had my husband, but he did not give me 100%. It was a lot of stress. If you have a partner, it’s almost impossible to get along. You may be best friends, but you could become enemies in an instant. You think you have the same vision, but have you worked with that person for two weeks straight, 24/7? What’s your family life? There are so many variables. Unless you have all of that in place, the recipe for success is not going to happen. Even if you do, success isn’t guaranteed right away. Try not to borrow money because if you’re not making money, how can you pay it back?

The restaurant business is in Betty’s blood and Aloha Food Factory has come a long way since she opened it in 1994. Betty shared the new vision she and her partners have for the future: “Our initial plan is to open five more restaurants and then franchise. That’s our ultimate goal. We’re heading in the right direction. James and Phu are looking for other locations. They brought in social media, which I’m not good at. That was another thing I needed to do, but I had more customers than I could handle already.”

As Betty shared the trials and tribulations of starting her business late in life, I realized many people in the area would someday reminisce about the original Aloha Food Factory. After all, it was the kind of place that made you feel like you were eating mom’s cooking.

By the time this issue was ready for the printer, we learned that Aloha Food Factory would be able to stay in its current location (narrowly avoiding the fate of becoming a carwash).

Conversations with Jess Lo. Written by Jess Lo. Edited by Diara Fowler & Eugenia Macias.

Cover Art by Sarah Emory. Brand Design by Meghan Hricak.