When Ronald Kalani Daniels was a kid growing up on Maui in the ’60s and ’70s, he and his friends spent a lot of time in Kahului Town. Afternoons after school at St. Anthony’s, he and his friends would traverse the triangle from Kahului Shopping Center to Dairy Queen to Aloha Restaurant, which sat where Walgreens is now on Pu‘unene Avenue and had an imu out back, spending their golden teenage hours eating ice cream, hanging out with friends, and talking story. There was no Queen Ka‘ahumanu Center; the only place to watch films on that side of the island was Iao Theater. After football games and school dances, Daniels and his friends would often head to the drive-in diner Cupies on Kamehameha Avenue for fries and shakes, to see and be seen by classmates and neighbors. Opened by Kiyohiko “Cupie” Yoshizawa in 1964, and later taken over by his son, Guy, Cupies was one of the popular home-style restaurants in the area, flavored by local favorites and beloved for its breaded teriyaki, ice cream, and breezy outdoor dining area.
Fifty years later, “I never thought I’d own the place,” Daniels laughed. “I didn’t expect to own a restaurant. If you told me ten years ago, I would have said you’re nuts.” Even though cooking and food service is in his blood – his father, a chef, started Maui’s culinary program back when UHMC was Maui Community College – the seventh-generation Maui boy never thought he’d own his own restaurant. After he graduated from MCC, Daniels wanted to go see the world. He played bass in an ’80s hair-metal rock band named Jade in California (“I had the big hair down to my butt, the whole nine yards”) and worked as a computer programmer in Japan in the ’90s before the financial crisis.
After those adventures, the pull of the islands asserted itself to the Maui boy, now grown. Uncertain of his next steps, he headed back home. But food was what he knew, and he opened a food truck before food trucks were common. He needed a commissary kitchen, and worked with family friend Bernard Paet, who bought Cupies from the Yoshizawa family in 2003. Then the opportunity came: Due to some personal challenges, Paet was selling. Did Daniels want to buy?
He was hesitant at first. Since he grew up in food culture, he knew exactly what owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant entailed. But the more he thought about it, he realized that Cupies was a part of local history. “There are just so many places that have gone already. The Dairy Queen went, and all the places I grew up with. This place had a lot of local restaurants in the area: Shirley’s, Barefoot Boys, Aloha – the Kahului Shopping Center was the place to go, back then.”
“I thought long and hard on it,” he told me. “I wanted to bring that back. OK, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right so it will last. I wanted to make it for Maui, and make it something that Maui can be proud of. I wanted to bring back something that’s where the locals go; they go to Cupies and they’re proud to come. It would be one more legacy gone, and I couldn’t do that.”
After buying in late 2017, Daniels decided to renovate and bring back the former glory of Cupies’ heyday. It’s a family business – his father, son, sister, cousins, and his wife and her family all help out. Daniels met his wife, Emma Mennal, in Japan. Mennal, who is originally from the Philippines, used to work at Foodland. “All the Foodland crew comes to help me,” she told me. “Cupies is family-oriented; they call us uncle, auntie. My niece works here; even my mom works here! Now I have a lot of employees. I don’t know where I’m going to put them!” Mennal, Daniels, and their family work hard, six days a week, with often 17-hour days.
Hiring a contractor, they underwent a deep clean, repainted everything with cheery red notes, commissioned a new sign with the original hopeful, old-fashioned ice-cream-cone logo, lit up the parking lot, and reopened the enclosed dining area to be a covered open-air space. “We brought it back to what it used to look like,” Daniels said. They started a Facebook page, and asked, “What do you remember about the old Cupies?” People started telling them what they remembered, with Daniels vowing to bring it back.
When they held the grand opening last summer, an elderly Cupie proudly cut the ribbon with a pair of oversized scissors, signaling the new phase of such a large piece of his family’s history. The place was decked out in red-and-white balloons, and they did a traditional Hawaiian blessing. The mayor spoke, and Cupie said a few words about how the restaurant began as an A&W before his wife suggested they do a counter service. “I’m really happy to be here,” Cupie said, decked out in lei and surrounded by his family. “When he came down, he was thrilled to see the place all painted up. The grand opening wasn’t for me, it was for him. It was their place,” Daniels told me.
On a sunny Friday afternoon, I sat down with Daniels and his manager, local girl Chelsea Dahileg, to talk story about Cupies, its history, and its future. Dahileg, who manages a staff of 45 including her cousins and sister-in-law, brought me an ube shake and a piping-hot plate of crinkle-cut fries with their special sauce: “This is the famous mayo-mustard-ketchup dip that everyone is always asking for more of!” she told me. The vibe is friendly and uniquely Maui.
“This place isn’t about me; it’s about Maui. It’s about keeping up its old reputation and keeping the place going. I wanted it to be a place where a grandparent could bring their grandkid and tell them, ‘This is how it used to be when I was growing up,’ and some place they could come every Sunday for an ice cream cone and make memories of their own.”
Daniels brought back the beloved breaded teriyaki as well as many old favorites from around town. The ice cream cones are a tribute to Treats and Sweets, and the plate lunches are reminiscent of Barefoot Boys’. Friday’s Hawaiian plate special and the dining area, full of shining new picnic tables where customers sit family-style, is a tribute to the old Aloha Restaurant. “They only sold Hawaiian food,” Daniels told me. “There was a big hall with a line of picnic tables with paper on top, and everybody would just sit with everybody else and just talk. That’s the kind of feel I wanted to get. I want this to be a place like you went to somebody’s house, where you just went inside the kitchen, get some food, sit in the backyard, and talk story.” Daniels chose house-style windows and doors for a homey, comfortable look.
Dahileg has been managing the restaurant since Daniels took over. “Chelsea is like my long lost daughter,” Daniels told me. A sweet King Kekaulike graduate, she made her own beautiful Tahitian pearl jewelry for years before coming to work at Cupies. She is friendly, with a large smile and an easy laugh, and like all the staff in the kitchen calls Daniels “Uncle Ron.”
During our conversation, Dahileg continually greeted customers by name. “You got your ice cream today?” she asked a three-year-old with his mom. “He’s one of our regulars,” she told me. Despite being the hour between lunch and dinner, the place was full. An older woman and her grandma sat together while an elderly man and his grandson shared a dish of fries. Three young men, still dressed for work, ordered burgers and shakes.
“It’s been really good, very busy! There’s never really a downtime anymore,” Dahileg said. The restaurant is open from 10am-10pm, and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, and Cupies gets busy after concerts and sports events. “We get a lot of regulars. There’s some people, they’re walking up and we already know what they’re ordering, so we put it in before they even get to the counter.”
“We have customers that come every day; we have customers that come three times a day,” said Daniels. “And they still complain that we close on Monday. Some say I cannot even eat at home for these prices!”
“The breaded teriyaki for sure,” Dahileg said when I asked her what’s popular with customers. “That’s the famous one. Cheeseburger and fries combo, always a go-to for a lot of people. Our chop steak, very popular. We’re still expanding our menu, too.”
During slow times and after closing, Dahileg and Daniels often experiment with new flavors. “We’re venturing off into expanding our shakes. They’re good, refreshing, and homemade.” Recently, they experimented with a Fruity Pebbles shake and a pineapple li hing mui flavor, and tried the results out on regulars.
There are some interesting flavors on the shakes menu, including the ube, a Filipino purple yam that tastes like a mixture of pistachio and vanilla, inspired by Mennal’s roots in the Philippines. “The ube is really popular, especially at the end of the night.” Other unique island flavors include pandan, a Southeast Asian plant with “a unique coconutty-flavor. It’s green; it’s really cool!”
Besides the shakes, which are growing in popularity, Cupies serves local comfort food. Most people come for the plate lunches, and the restaurant has all the standards: hamburger steak, loco moco, chop steak, and some fish options to round it out. Plates come with rice and mac salad or corn. Daily specials are reflective of local favorites and range from ribeye steak to BBQ spareribs, chicken katsu, and a pancit plate lunch; and from Hawaiian plates with lau lau, chicken long rice and lomi salmon, to classic comfort foods like spaghetti, chowder, and tuna melts.
The menu also includes omelet plates with favorites like Portuguese sausage, spam, and vienna sausage. Prices at Cupies are hard to beat. The hamburger will run you $2.65 and goes all the way up to a whopping $3.25 for a cheeseburger deluxe. There’s also a teri beef sandwich, grilled cheese, and an egg sandwich.
Many families have grown up with Cupies, which has roots decades deep, much like other long-time local places like Sheik’s and Tasty Crust. Many local restaurants, like Treats and Sweets, have gone under, but these old monuments to the past still stand.
In an old picture of Cupies, taken when the Kahului restaurant opened in the ’60s, palm trees sway over a single-story building. The take-out counter looks over a spacious parking lot, and a dining area to the left is shaded from the searing central Maui sun. Pulling up to Cupies today, nothing much has changed. Fifty years later, the parking lot is little more worn, and a few trees have made way for a gas station next door, but everything else, from the dining area to the take-out corner to the swaying palm trees, is much as it has always been.
The renovation has freshened up the iconic Cupies, which exudes an old-fashioned charm that makes it easy to picture a sleepier, more connected Kahului. Framed letter boards display the menu and prices over the counter; a couple of red umbrellas, slightly faded from the hot Kahului sun, cover a picnic table.
“Everything we do, we try to stay true to who we are. And who we are is a local restaurant, family owned,” Daniels told me. His dad is his consultant, his wife works in the office, his cousin is a prep cook, and his son, who greets us while we sit at the picnic tables, also works there.
He hired teenagers to man the counter because “they bring a certain energy,” and their friends come and hang out. They call him Uncle Ron. “I knew I had it when I came out and there were five or six groups of kids just hanging out. They hung out just like we hung out; no parents, just having fun. I knew then, I’m good.” He and his staff are working on things new things with teens in mind, like Monster-infused shakes, digital signage, and a cheese steak, with no plans to do away with the framed letter boards and old favorites.
Cupies hails from an era that almost feels gone, a time when the favorite local restaurants and stores, from Ooka’s to Noda’s to Ah Fook’s, were named after members of Maui’s mixed-plate community, when customers knew each other and the owners. “We want it to be like you got it from home. We want to be known as a place for locals,” Daniels told me. “I don’t know what the future holds, but we’re going to keep this up and be as genuine as possible. We’re going to stick to who we are.”
“I think we’re doing something right,” said Dahileg. Judging by their business that afternoon, they are.
Cover design by Darris Hurst