Blast from the past

Cupie’s new owner returning to drive-in’s roots

Emma Mennel (from left), Ronald Daniels and Ronald Kalani Daniels will soon reopen Cupie’s, the beloved takeout place in Kahului. Until last year, it was run by Bentos & Banquets By Bernard, which put its own local twist on the food. Owner Ronald Kalani Daniels will return Cupie’s to its roots and the favorites on the menu of the Yoshizawa family, which started the restaurant in 1964. The Maui News / MELISSA TANJI photos

KAHULUI — Maybe in few weeks, the famous Cupie’s-style breaded beef teriyaki will be making a come back on the Valley Isle.

Ronald Kalani Daniels, a former cook, computer software programmer and musician, along with chef and cousin Robert “Bob” Cambra are bringing back the original Kahului drive-in favorites, including chow fun, hamburger steak, chop steak and beef tomato.

Cupie’s Drive-in, along Kamehameha Avenue next to the Kahului Public Library, first opened in 1964.

In December, Daniels bought the Kahului eatery from Bentos & Banquets by Bernard, which took over the restaurant in 2003 from the Yoshizawa family that started it all.

Daniels mainly bought the business because he needed a commercial kitchen for his food truck, but he had a desire to open a restaurant as well. He wanted to keep the site under the Cupie’s name.

Chef Robert “Bob” Cambra, the chef at Cupie’s when it opens later this month, is testing out some recipes, including garlic soybeans.

“We only get Cupie’s, Tasty Crust and Sheik’s,” Daniels, 55, said of the remaining iconic locally owned eateries. “The last surviving restaurants of the good old days. . . . I cannot get rid of one more.”

Cupie’s fit his “get back to basics” menu. He didn’t want to venture out “Food Network style,” as he described it, by doing “all these fancy stuff.”

“You can come in every day, eat good home cooking,” he said.

On Tuesday, contractors and workers were busy painting, working on the exterior and beginning to assemble long picnic tables to be used in the old Cupie’s seating area adjacent to the takeout windows and kitchen.

Locals hungry for Cupie’s grinds have been eagerly anticipating the eatery’s opening. Daniels hopes to have Cupie’s and his food truck, Cupie’s Express, ready to open by the end of February.

He plans to announce the official opening on the Cupies Maui page on Facebook, which his wife, Emma Mennel, has been updating regularly with photos and information.

Daniels’ 21-year-old son, Austin, will be in charge of the family company’s three food trucks. Cupie’s Express will be parked in Wailuku along Hookahi Street; the other two trucks will open later with different concepts, the family said.

Daniels has been speaking with former Cupie’s owner, Guy Yoshizawa, about the recipe for the breaded beef teriyaki, and other former Cupie’s cooks on menu items.

The new owner also has been working on bringing back Cupie’s golden-brown fried chicken, which was broasted. He’s looking for the right pressure cooker to do the job.

Cupie’s fried chicken was sold in buckets and was part of a bento accompanied by a giant musubi.

“So many people ask for that chicken,” Daniels said. “I don’t want to do the chicken unless we can do it right.”

Daniels is Cupie’s third owner. Bernard Paet of Bentos & Banquets bought Cupie’s in 2003 and put his own local twist on the food.

Paet said he will be continuing with a custom catering trailer and go out on the road and do some food truck work here and there. He runs the truck with son, Matthew.

The Yoshizawa family founded Cupie’s in 1964. Cupie was the nickname of Guy Yoshizawa’s father.

Daniels is working to return Cupie’s to its roots. Besides its food, Cupie’s was known for its soft serve ice cream, and Daniels plans to bring that back. The thick crinkle-cut fries with mustard mayonnaise dip also will be on the menu.

Chef Cambra, who was raised on Papa Avenue near Cupie’s, recalled that, when he wanted to eat hamburger and fries, he would go to the old Dairy Queen, which was around the corner from Cupie’s. If it was breaded teriyaki he was hungry for, his stop was Cupie’s.

He remembers the many local restaurants along Lono and Kamehameha avenues near the Kahului Shopping Center with Cupie’s, Dairy Queen (currently Plantation Grindz), Port Town delicatessen and Barefoot Boy.

While many of those old-time restaurants are long gone, Cambra said he would like to see Kahului “come back again.”

Cambra brings his experiences from past employers, such as the Waterfront, the old Maui Prince Hotel, the Mill House and Aria’s, to Cupie’s.

Along with Cambra’s knowledge of the Maui food scene, Daniels can tap the wisdom of his father, Ronald, who taught at Maui Community College, the predecessor to University of Hawaii Maui College. The elder Daniels started the hotel and food service programs at the college in the 1970s.

Ronald Daniels, 81, is serving as a consultant on the Cupie’s project.

Daniels’ late mother, Elizabeth, also will have a hand in the menu with her spareribs recipe.

Cupie’s and its overseeing company, Raceworks Enterprises, are a family affair, and Daniels would like to bring that family feeling to his businesses.

He wants to bring back the memories as well. He will hang old photos and have memorabilia at Cupie’s.

“Bob (Cambra) or myself aren’t out to impress anybody,” Daniels said. “We just want to make good food and be a good spot for people to relate and eat good food.”

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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