Building On Good Foundations

Photo by Lawrence Tabudlo

The hospitality industry is in good hands because of people like Sheryl Matsuoka and Jared Higashi, and the educational foundations they represent.

They may not be household names, but Sheryl Matsuoka and Jared Higashi are among those who labor diligently in the state’s hospitality industry, playing vital parts in ensuring that this all-important sector that employs tens of thousands of people keeps humming along and growing.

Both juggle many duties in their roles — Higashi as vice president of government and community affairs at Hawai‘i Lodging & Tourism Association, an entity that serves a membership of nearly 700 hotels, resorts, airlines, banks, ground transportation companies and more; and Matsuoka as executive director of Hawai‘i Restaurant Association, which represents some 4,000 restaurants throughout the islands.

Still, much of their daily focus and passion can be found in advancing the causes of their respective organization’s educational foundations, and particularly when it comes to developing the next generation of hospitality workers. Case in point, HLTA and HRA’s partnership with Honolulu Star-Advertiser in staging the annual Hawai‘i Hotel & Restaurant Show funds scholarship initiatives for those seeking careers in the food and beverage, travel and tourism, and lodging sectors.

Since 1974, HLTA’s charitable arm, Hawai‘i Hotel Industry Foundation, has awarded scholarships to college and high school students while also issuing grants to altruistic organizations through its visitor industry Charity Walk event held each May.

“This event consistently raises over $2.5 million annually for local nonprofit organizations across the four counties,” says Higashi. “The Charity Walk remains a steadfast pillar of community engagement and philanthropy.”

Similarly, the eight-year-old Hawai‘i Restaurant Association Educational Foundation also provides scholarships and grants, as well as resources and training to youth and adults interested in joining the food service workforce.

“We’re the voice for the food service industry here in Hawai‘i,” says Matsuoka, “and our foundation exists to cultivate our future culinary employees, our cooks and our restaurant workers.

“In Hawai‘i, the worker shortage is real,” she adds, “so we have to develop them when they’re in high school.”

Higashi and Matsuoka do their best operating with few staffers — six members each, to be exact. And yet, the limited numbers never seem to get in the way of meeting objectives.

As Higashi shares, “At HLTA, we are a small yet formidable team. I take pride in collaborating with a group of exceptionally talented team members who serve as the cornerstone of our organization.” Over the years, Hawai‘i Hotel Industry Foundation has hung its hat on several notable scholarships it presents annually to students at the high school and collegiate levels, says Higashi. Among the most significant are the HLTA Member Scholarship, introduced in 2017 and awarded to graduating high school seniors (a total of $17,000 each year) who are the offspring of HLTA members; the Citizen-Scholar Awards, a joint effort with the state Department of Education and Honolulu Star-Advertiser, which hands out $1,000 scholarships to high school seniors; and the Ho‘oilina Scholarship, launched in 2019 by HLTA president and CEO Mufi Hannemann and then president and CEO of Hawai‘i Tourism Authority Chris Tatum, and which are offered to those looking for careers in the tourism sector.

“We give out approximately $62,000 annually for our Citizen-Scholar Awards,” Higashi says. “This is very special — it’s a collaboration between the three entities (HLTA, DOE and Honolulu Star-Advertiser) — and we continue to find ways to make it grow.

“As for our Ho‘oilina award, Mufi and Chris took a chunk of money and provided full-ride scholarships to students in our DOE public high schools who choose to matriculate at UH Mānoa’s School of Travel Industry Management.”

Scholarship winners have always expressed gratitude for HLTA’s role in shaping their futures, Higashi notes.

“I think it’s twofold for them. It’s definitely appreciation on their part for one; they’re appreciative of the opportunity to apply for these scholarships,” he explains. “But the second thing is they’re proud and very honored to be selected as someone who kind of stands out in their school and in their community.”

Investing in such individuals determined to grow and give back to Hawai‘i’s hospitality industry — even if it means they leave the islands for a while — remains a worthwhile initiative, he adds.

“I think there’s a benefit to having our youth experience things outside of Hawai‘i. Of course, our goals and aspirations for these young individuals are to one day come back if they decide to leave. Even when they do travel abroad, I think the idea is that they’ll take whatever they learn and bring it back and help make our public and private sectors just that much better for it,” says Higashi, a graduate of Hawai‘i Baptist Academy who also left the islands before returning in 2014.

“Of course, if they decide to stay here, we’ll embrace them and give them what they need to succeed.” Matsuoka is most pleased with her foundation’s keystone training program for high school juniors and seniors, ProStart Culinary. It’s a nationally accredited initiative that emphasizes the basics of cooking and has already been adopted by 11 high schools across the state — eight on O‘ahu, two on Maui and one on Hawai‘i island. Currently, there are more than 1,800 students enrolled.

According to Matsuoka, ProStart Culinary was cooked up “to create a bench of future food service superstars.”

“These superstars are really the people who we are cultivating in high school and saying this industry could be an option for you,” she says. “Not everybody wants to be an engineer; not everybody wants to be a doctor. The coach, who is the restaurateur, needs to have a bench filled with skilled team players ready to jump into the culinary game.

“These are the students that we’re cultivating.”

HRA has shown the willingness to nurture its program even in difficult times. During the pandemic, for example, it launched what it called its Mad Skills Culinary Challenge, an online contest that kept students engaged despite being subjected to distance learning.

“We had small gift cards and small prizes that we gave students and the challenge was based on food safety standards,” explains Matsuoka. “We also had different competitions where they had to make a dish with Spam, take a picture and send it to us. We also had what we called The Great Replate, where the students bought a burger or made a burger, and then they’d have to re-plate it.

“What the challenge taught them was plating skills, food safety knowledge, recipe development, all the different things they would have learned in a classroom, but we did this during the pandemic in the hope that the educational foundation would be able to assist them through this ongoing class,” she continues.

“This also helped the teachers because they were struggling, too. I mean, how do you teach knife skills when the kids are at home?”

Last year, the foundation awarded more than $30,000 in financial support to students. Grants were also handed out to schools to purchase much-needed equipment and supplies that support the ProStart curriculum. Since the foundation’s inception, it’s doled out $25,000 in student scholarships and $20,000 in school grants.

For Matsuoka, it’s money well spent and not just because the program leads students to career opportunities in food service, but also because it provides meaning and joy to the youngsters’ lives.

“In the beginning, many of them were like, ‘Auntie, the reason I took this class is cause we can eat in school!’ They were so cute and honest,” recalls Matsuoka, laughing. “One boy said, ‘Then I realized that I really liked it. My mother told me if you don’t know how cook, you not going eat — so you better learn to cook!’”

If Matsuoka has an affinity for the food industry, it’s probably due in part to her husband being a third-generation restaurateur whose family owned past establishments such as Pearl City Tavern and Little George’s. But it’s also because she recognizes all the sacrifices required to run an eatery.

“You’re not going to find anyone more passionate than I am about this industry because I know how hard a restaurateur works,” says Matsuoka, who joined HRA in 2019 after serving more than a decade as an executive director with various organizations. “That’s all a restaurateur wants: to see clients come back over and over, to see the community supporting their business.

“Our food is our culture here in Hawai‘i,” adds the Kalani High School alumna. “People come here and they want to try our local foods and local cuisines, and we need to keep that food culture going.”

Premier Trade Show Returns To Blaisdell

More than 300 exhibitor booths will be featured at the fourth annual Hawai‘i Hotel & Restaurant Show, scheduled for March 20-21 at the Neal Blaisdell Center Exhibition Hall.

The event — which serves as the official hospitality trade show for Hawai‘i Lodging & Tourism Association, Hawai‘i Restaurant Association and Honolulu Star-Advertiser — runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on both days.

Ave Kwok, chairman of the Hawai‘i Restaurant Association, believes the islands’ restaurant and hospitality industries are “stronger than ever” and that the 2024 showcase will be “a primary indicator of Hawai‘i’s resiliency.”

During the show, “Attendees can also expect relevant educational seminars by industry experts, live demonstrations as well as the latest trends in information technology and quality operations,” Kwok says.

Jared Higashi, vice president of government and community affairs at Hawai‘i Lodging & Tourism Association, adds, “We eagerly anticipate welcoming thousands of business owners, operators, managers and associates to our two-day show. It’s an excellent opportunity for business-to-business interaction, where vendors can showcase the latest goods, products and services.”

Show sponsors include Sysco Hawai‘i, UHA Health Insurance and Hawai‘i Gas.

Are you a restaurant and hospitality professional? Register for the show online.