With a rich history that dates back to the early 1900’s Pioneer Inn is a part of the culture and deep memories of old Lahaina and Hawaii. Lee Anne Wong has always been drawn to farm fresh ingredients and nurturing the local farmers and growers of these islands. It was a perfect fit for her and her family to nestledown where the soil is full of nutrients, the produce is premium and the historic Pioneer Inn could use a fresh, progressive woman’s touch to take the restaurant to the next level.
In this interview with award-winning, TV personality, author and mother, Chef Lee Anne Wong learn more about her role at the new Best Western Pioneer Inn, how she came to be there and what it was like to open a new restaurant (Papa’aina) just on the brink of a pandemic and how she was forced to navigate through various closures, re-openings, unpredictable ups and downs.
How did you come to be at the Pioneer Inn?
“One of my friends here turned me on to the space when I was looking to move here. I didn’t want to move without having a plan/job in place, so I spent a solid year and a half looking at various restaurants and businesses, meeting with realtors and lawyers. I visited the Pioneer Inn a few times, and the family that owns and operates the Best Western Pioneer Inn and the ground lease were looking to have a third party potentially take over the existing restaurant, The Pioneer Inn Grill and Bar, which had been here for decades… less renowned for its food and drink than it’s colorful stories told by its great many patrons over the years. I distinctly remember looking at its location next to the banyan tree and in front of the harbor and thinking how much potential it had, and then of course the interior courtyard just made me think “yes” every time I walked into it. The courtyard in particular was basically underutilized and I first thought about a beer garden situation before COVID happened.”
What is your culinary vision for the restaurant?
“Interestingly enough, the vision I had pre-covid is hopefully going to be just what the neighborhood needs. We ripped out the back banquettes along a wall in the rear of the restaurant and put in a deluxe grab and go counter complete with barista station and hot and cold food stations. Our goal is to move to a quick service model during the daytime to really be able to service the traffic of the harbor and downtown area. Guests will still be able to enjoy our chef-driven fare, but eliminate the inconvenience and time suck of a full service operation, while allowing us to fully utilize all of our various dining areas in the hotel/restaurant. The menu is ever evolving because of our commitment to seasonal, local ingredients, and I would like to think that while we are currently focused on brunch, we become well known for our creative fare and our fresh overhaul of this legendary location, at Maui’s oldest hotel, The Pioneer Inn. If all goes well and we continue our organic growth plan, we will resume dinner service full time before the end of the year.”
Looks like you serve primarily brunch with you some elements of dinner?
“Yes, we are on limited hours currently, as business is still slowly ramping up in our area. Because we are running with a slim staff, we decided brunch was where we would focus our efforts as it is still a niche market here in Lahaina. I began doing Friday night dinners for the local community with the menu changing weekly. What started as a struggle to get 20 people to show up, now we sell out weekly before I even post a menu.”
Tell me about opening this restaurant amid Covid and how this has impacted you?
“Yes, so the plan was never to have a full service restaurant still, but COVID happened, and here we are. When I took over the restaurant in the fall of 2019, we were doing all day service from 7am-9pm, and dinner service hadn’t been been doing well for quite some time. We first closed the hotel and restaurant back in late March 2020, which gave our contractors time to renovate the kitchen. When we reopened, it was just myself, my chef de cuisine, and our F&B manager, and the three of us ran the restaurant alone all summer. Thankfully we had our beautiful courtyard to use while the dining room and bar room were being renovated. It provided plenty of space for social distancing and the open air setting made it more comfortable for our guests as we all navigated the new mask wearing rules and mandates from the state and county. We focused on the morning meal because we had to have breakfast available for our hotel guests. All I can say it was a crazy summer. Lahaina was one of the number one towns in the country that took a economical hit, because this town is so highly dependent on tourism. It went from completely full to a boarded up ghost town. It actually gave us the opportunity to build our business with the local community, and COVID kind of allowed us a grace period in which some of our initial mistakes were excused because it was just three of us trying to do everything ourselves. We are currently running full service, and have beefed up our staff, waiting for the time when tourism comes back in full swing and we start seeing serious foot traffic in front of our restaurant again so we can switch over to our quick service concept. It’s been challenging to build a full service concept with the idea that I have to tear it down in a month or two and create something new and different, but I feel good about the team we are building and the overwhelming support we have received from the local community.”
What changes or new protocols do you have in place?
“We are complying with all state and county mandates including but not limited to indoor and outdoor mask wearing, increased sanitization practices, reduced seating capacity, and social distancing measures. We’ve found that most of our guests have been understanding to the new rules as everyone is just doing their best to keep up with the ever changing mandates.”
How can people support you and the business?
“COME EAT! LET US FEED YOU!!! Gift certificates are available online. You can follow us on Instagram @papaainamaui @leeannewong”