KAILUA—Kailua is at a critical point in its evolution as a town. The pressures of big stores like Safeway, Whole Foods, and Target are visceral, and residents are awakening to the need for self-definition to preserve the small-scale, local economy that defines the small beach-side community. As the editor covering Kailua, I see it everyday, and while sometimes I have the unfortunate obligation to document large corporations steamrolling grassroots protests, sometimes I have the pleasure of featuring resilient mom-and-pop joints succeeding in their original endeavor.
This week, Cinnamon’s Restaurant will mark 25 years of satisfying appetites in Kailua. I got to sit down with the founder and owner himself, Puna Nam, over a delicious frittata omelette and talk about his experience with the business and community over the past quarter century.
“I was in the restaurant business for 15 years before starting here,” said Nam. He worked for hotel chains across the islands and was originally considering opening up a place on Maui, which was really picking up speed in the early 1980s, or Kona, where he eventually wanted to retire. His wife, however, used to frequent the Cinnamon’s spot—which was then Big Island Beef, or BIBs—and knew the owners. “One night, lo and behold, they said they were willing to sell,” Name said. “I was kind of reluctant, but we looked at it and decided to take it.”
After renovations and a name change (there’s a French fairy tale about a cinnamon bear who helps out with the baked goods) on March 1, 1985, Cinnamon’s Family Restaurant opened its doors. Since then, Nam’s wife—an avid baker—has been up at 4:00 a.m. to bake the biscuits, coffee cake, cinnamon buns, and desserts.
Cinnamon’s is open 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and specializes in breakfast and lunch (they’re also open the first Saturday of the month from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. for dinner and Hawaiian music). Its breakfast menu, in fact, has not lost a single item but expanded, offering omelets, eggs Benedict, and skillet breakfasts, among many others.
“We came up with the skillet breakfast—that’s something I believe we developed,” Nam said. “We make our own fries; cut the potatoes, skin on, fry it, season it. Red and white onions, put it in a skillet.”
To celebrate the 25th anniversary, they’re bringing back some of the original lunch items no longer served daily. To listen to Nam describe his menu items is to listen to a passionate man, indeed.
“Throughout the years, we’ve revised the menu,” he said. “You’ve got to keep up with what’s popular. For lunch, we dropped items, the double delight (salad greens with a scoop of tuna salad and chicken salad), ham and cheese on sweetbread, chicken fantasy—this one is good but it’s really involved. It’s a broiled fillet of chicken on a fresh spinach bed topped with broccoli, hollandaise, and swiss cheese.”
Also, he said, the coffee is more local than you might find elsewhere, where the blend can be just 10 percent Kona and be called Kona. At Cinnamon’s, the blend is 25 percent Kona and 25 percent Kauai.
Having been in the community so long, Nam has watched the town develop and change, which sometimes puts his personal and business interests at odds.
“We’ve lived here 40 years now,” Nam said. “As a resident, you want to keep the place just so, but with the density, there’s apartments, condos. The beaches are being used more, there’s more commerce. It takes longer to get places. But from a business standpoint, it’s good, you welcome the newcomers because it’s a broader market. But with more people, the prices go up.”
Cinnamon’s is not the only business to have to change their menu and prices. However, they always offer an eco-friendly (economically, that is) daily special which is never more than $7.
“[Compared to] the big boxes: Target, Whole Foods,” Nam explained, “we’re different because we offer more of a personal touch. You can’t match big box prices but you can give it a personal touch. The key to being successful is being sensitive to the customers” needs and make sure they’re satisfied.”
And Nam isn’t backing down any time soon. In five years, when Cinnamon’s lease expires, Nam plans to renew. “The reason we’ve been able to survive the economy is because we built a strong customer base,” he said. “Another reason is our employees have been with us a long time. Our cashier, hostess, and three waitresses have been with us since we opened. The rest average 15 to 16 years here. They know peoples’ idiosyncrasies, they have a good rapport.”
Cinnamon’s has also hosted to occasional fundraisers when staff have needed help, such as the recent fundraiser for a waitress’ goddaughter who is three and has cancer. Then the staff all work volunteer hours and the restaurant stay open until night.
Nam is also president of the Kailua Chamber of Commerce, and the restaurant has done donations to various charities throughout the years.
315 Uluniu Street
Kailua, HI 96734-2523