In its phone answering system, Kahiki Foods extends you a big “A-looo-ha!” and although its operation is based in Columbus, Ohio, Kahiki has proven that the home of Buckeyes football is large enough to embrace an enduring Polynesian legacy.
Indeed, designated “The Best Polynesian Restaurant in the World” and “One of the Top 100 Restaurants of the 20th Century,” The Kahiki Supper Club, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997, began its legacy in 1961 and didn’t only convey the culture of the South Seas, it hit you in the face with it. While the restaurant closed down in 2000, Kahiki Foods continues the tradition and has become one of the leaders in the Asian frozen food marketplace.
Yet, despite the success of the frozen food venture, many tears were shed when The Kahiki Supper Club closed and, despite its historic designation, razed to make way for a Walgreen’s in 2000 (company officials didn’t think its building, in the shape of a huge Polynesian war canoe, spoke to the ideal of historic preservation). Vice President of Sales and Marketing Tim Tsao, part of Kahiki’s second generation management team, recalls how the tiki craze began, in the aftermath of World War II, when returning GIs from the Pacific Rim, with a taste for Polynesian fare, sought to duplicate the region’s culture and cuisine by opening what has become a fabulous representation of American kitsch.
“The Kahiki Supper Club was one of the marquee tiki-themed establishments in the United States – it was really over the top,” he relates. In addition to the 300-foot-tall canoe-shaped façade and 80-foot-high ceilings, the restaurant was replete with fountains, waterfalls, tropical fish and plants, parrots, huge tiki god statues, grass huts, palm trees, and paintings. They served up flaming desserts and drinks amidst an atmosphere that rivaled the best desert island, and even simulated thunder and lightning. According to one report: “People would wait for hours to get into the 20,000-square-foot restaurant.”
Kahiki’s had established its place in Columbus by the time Tsao’s parents, Alice and Michael, had immigrated to California from China in 1968, whereupon Michael entered the restaurant business as a manager at Trader Vic’s in Los Angeles. In a few years he was transferred to take over the management of Kahiki’s and eventually brought the brand and the restaurant, lock, stock and palm tree.
The Kroger factor
The Tsaos were swimming in Kahiki fame when one day they received a phone call that would mark the beginning of a new venture. Frequent visitors to the supper club, a group of Kroger executives, loving the Asian and Polynesian food, had an idea. As consumer demand for premium ethnic foods was growing, Kroger saw an opportunity and, in 1991, asked Tsao if Kahiki would supply all of the chain’s Columbus-area deli departments with frozen entrees and appetizers under the Kahiki® brand. Tsao hadn’t thought about entering this end of the business but wisely decided it would be a good complement to his famed restaurant.
After pursuing the local Kroger group’s offer, Tsao went on through an initial public offering to form Kahiki Foods Inc. in 1994. The IPO raised enough cash to build a 7,000-square-foot plant next to the restaurant. (Tim Tsao recalls the restaurant workers rolling egg rolls on a long table in the plant.) With the close of the restaurant in 2000 (Michael Tsao passed away in 2005), Tsao shifted to full-time processing at a 22,000-square-foot site near the Columbus airport. Now in a 120,000-square-foot plant in Gahanna, the company’s sales went from $2.6 million in 1999 to $14 million in 2003 and spiked to $23 million in 2005.
Kahiki Foods today produces 104 different items including egg rolls, appetizers, entrees, meal kits and party platters for distribution throughout North America. The company sells its products in retail grocery chains and other outlets such as Sam’s Club and Costco. Recently, it has expended much energy in expanding its private label operation, which currently comprises 17 percent of its business (retail grocery is 45 percent of sales; clubs represent 26 percent of sales).
“Private label is a growing category because of the changing landscape of retail grocery,” Tsao says, pointing to Safeway’s organics program, run by people from Procter & Gamble as opposed to someone who grew up in the grocery industry, proof of the wave of change taking place.
The company is also basking in the new-found fame it’s received as a result of its new naturals line, making it the first frozen food manufacturer to launch a full line of Asian entrees and appetizers in the natural/organic category. “Asian today is where Italian was 15 years ago,” Tsao says.
The company’s all-naturals line was unveiled at the recent ExpoEast Natural and Organic Trade Show in Baltimore. The product line-up will include seven items that range from 9.5 to 13.5 ounces, have a suggested retail price of $4.59, and are packaged in 100 percent recycled paperboard. These include:
• General Tso’s Chicken with Hibachi Fire-Grilled Antibiotic-Free Chicken, served with Brown Rice
• Mandarin Orange Chicken with Hibachi Fire-Grilled Antibiotic-Free Chicken, served with Brown Rice
• Szechuan Peppercorn Beef with Coleman®-brand Fire-Grilled All-Natural Beef, served with Brown Rice
• Teriyaki Mixed Vegetables with Authentic Chinese Vegetables, served with Brown Rice
• General Tso’s Chicken Wraps with Antibiotic-Free Chicken, served with White Whole-Wheat Wraps
• Kung Pao Chicken Wraps with Antibiotic-Free Chicken, served with White Whole-Wheat Wraps
• Vegetable Shiitake Egg Rolls, featuring Shiitake Mushrooms and Edamame
At the time the line was announced, Tim Tsao said, “Our teams have put forth an unprecedented attention to detail with this line. We are very proud to say that these are the best-tasting, best-for-you creations our company has ever produced.” These products, he adds, “are also significant because this commitment to health and wellness, evidenced in ingredients, nutrition, and formulation, will soon be seen in our mainline products.”
One of the most exciting things about the Kahiki brand, Tsao says, is that it has set trends in the industry – “that’s really a neat place to be,” he says. “We’ve always prided ourselves on our premium ingredients – we use nothing artificial.” Indeed, when Kahiki made the decision to reduce sodium, it stuck to it, going with miso, a soybean derivative, instead. “It comes from Japan,” Tsao says. “It has a terrific health benefit.”
Another venture that Tsao is excited about involves a cobranding initiative with Coleman to offer Szechuan peppercorn beef as part of the company’s all-natural beef line. An interesting aside, Tsao explains: “Szechuan peppercorn was banned from the U.S. until 18 months ago because if you eat it raw it numbs the mouth. But we’ve started to see it at many top restaurants.”
Kahiki’s, Tsao says, sees as its competition Chinese and Asian restaurant food, which can offer taste that cannot easily be duplicated in the frozen food aisle. But Tsao believes Kahiki’s has advanced the industry with its research and penchant for quality and innovation, remarking on the “wonderful management team in place,” including his mother, who is chairwoman of the board, and his brother, chef Jeffrey Tsao. “Our sales continue to grow,” he says, “and we’ve had a huge response to our all-natural products.”
And so, Kahiki’s endures. And while many of its artifacts have been sold (the Easter Island heads were given away a few months ago to a couple in Maine writing a book on the tiki phenomenon) the company’s legacy of good food will continue. Kahiki’s name might translate to mean “sail to Tahiti” but its ship is westward ho.