PUKALANI - Part-time Maui resident Ernie Abarro has brought Fatburger - considered the nation's oldest burger chain - to Hawaii with a newly opened fast-casual restaurant in the Pukalani Terrace Center.
Despite the sluggish economy that has seen a slew of Maui restaurant closures in recent years, Abarro said he saw potential in bringing the popular Los Angeles gourmet burger chain to Upcountry residents. Not to mention the state's highest-grossing Foodland Super Market next door, according to Abarro.
"Most people would put this restaurant in town, but more people live up here than you think. And this is a busy center with people doing grocery shopping, going to the bank," he said. "There's enough people to support it here."
Seabury Hall senior Roxane Gaedeke, 17, gets a wipe from classmate Daniel Goodfellow while taking the Fatburger XXXL Challenge with junior Elle Carvalho, 17, on Wednesday in Pukalani. The two girls managed to scarf down the giant burgers and earn the right to have their photos added to the restaurant’s wall of fame.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
With limited restaurant offerings in the area, he sees a "captive market" in the Makawao, Pukalani, Haiku and Kula neighborhoods, where the distance into town often deters residents from making the trek down "the hill" just to eat.
Abarro, who splits his time between Maui and California, was already familiar with the Fatburger chain, having previously franchised a restaurant in Irvine, Calif., that has since closed.
"I kind of fell in love with the food," he said.
The company was founded in Los Angeles in 1952 - three years before the McDonald's Corp. launched - and is known for its hefty - or fat - premium burgers that weigh from 2.5 ounces (the "small") up to 24 ounces (the "XXXL"). Despite the "fat" in its name, the restaurant chain's burgers are made from lean ground chuck sirloin beef.
The grilled-to-order burgers come standard with shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, relish, mustard and mayonnaise. For an extra charge, customers can customize their burgers with a range of added toppings such as a fried egg, grilled onions, bacon and chili.
"It's really fresh ingredients," Abarro said. "Basically, you can come in and build your own burger the way you want it. "Everyone likes things different, so we have a little bit of everything so that you can make your own concoction. That's the unique thing about Fatburger."
The menu also includes turkey and veggie burgers, three kinds of chicken sandwiches, hand-cut fries and onion rings, and shakes made with Roselani ice cream.
Abbarro - who also owns the IHOP restaurant in the Maui Mall and a Del Taco franchise in California - said his biggest challenge has been to balance the cost of doing business in Hawaii with what he charges customers.
"Distribution costs are my biggest challenge because it's expensive to bring everything in," Abarro said. "I have to balance that to make a competitive offering."
The most commonly ordered burger - a medium with a one-third-pound patty - is $6.89 by itself, and $10.69 with a meal that includes fries and a drink. Eat-in customers get food served to their table.
Abarro admits he's heard some complaints about his pricing being on the high side since opening in July, but said he feels his menu is competitive.
"I surveyed the competition, and we're very competitively priced," he said. "People are still looking for a value, but they're also willing to pay if it's good. We're more of a premium burger."
The restaurant served up more than 500 burgers on opening day, and brought in about $10,000 in sales, Abarro said.
"You always open up big. It's settling down now," he said. "This is more of a neighborhood place for the local community."
Fatburger - which went into the spot of a former Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant - is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and until 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday.
To help boost business in the late afternoon, the restaurant does a daily "happy hour" special from 4 to 6 p.m., where customers can get a free medium burger with the purchase of a medium or large burger meal.
Another promotion that's helping attract eaters is Fatburger's XXXL Challenge. Customers who order the XXXL burger - containing a pound-and-a-half of beef - and eat the entire sandwich on site get their photo posted on the restaurant's wall and a certificate to take home.
That challenge attracted Seabury Hall students Roxane Gaedeke and Elle Carvalho on a recent weekday afternoon.
"I heard of the challenge and was inspired to do it," Gaedeke said. "It's such an American thing, to do anything for fame."
"This makes me so happy," Carvalho said upon receiving her certificate. "It's going in my binder."
Abbarro, who hired 35 employees for the Pukalani store, recently opened his second Fatburger location in Hawaii at the Pearl Harbor U.S. Naval base in Honolulu and has plans to expand the chain on Maui.
"I think there are other opportunities on Maui," he said, noting South Maui in particular.
Nationally, Fatburger has more than 100 locations in eight other states, including Arizona, California, Nevada and New Jersey, as well as international outlets, including restaurants in Canada, China, Indonesia and South Korea.
Fatburger's franchise fee for domestic restaurants is $50,000, according to the company's website. The company also takes a percentage of sales for royalty fees and to cover national and local advertising.
* Nanea Kalani can be reached at email@example.com.