Thursday, June 4, 2009

Eating Local: JA Okazuya in Hawaii

Went to another lecture today. It was entitled "Eating Local: Nostalgia, Identities, and Japanese American Delicatessens in Hawaii" given by Christine R. Yano from the University of Hawaii Mano.

Lol, she thought I was from Hawaii. Actually a lot of people have said I look like I'm from Hawaii. Haha, I definitely take it as a compliment.

I found it very interesting, especially since I was in Hawaii last December. She drew some main conclusions from her anthropological study in okazuya establishments on Oahu and the Big Island in 2002:

1. Cater to urban, blue collared workers- they want to have a home-cooked meal for lunch, the ordinariness of the businesses
2. No ethnic boundaries placed around the food- cooked what would sell
3. Service and relationships built into what you get
4. Okazuya as sites of sociality- "flavor of the family"
5. Small and unfranchised- association with a sense of "home," trust

As she said during her talk, the food and knowledge of the sites sets locals apart. Their whole idea seems to contradict modern business logic. Most have a low-key presence, do not advertise, some do not even have signs. But as Yano argued, it is an emphasis on human relationships, not branding.

Yano explained that a lot of the stores are closing because there are not people to carry on the family business. In many instances they would rather have their children pursue other occupations. And when faced with selling the restaurant, they would rather just close it, as they see the business as a family matter. The hole-in-the-wall establishments are seen as a passing of a generation. They represent the plantation era of Hawaii, shared hardship, sense of interdependence, a representation of the poverty.

These types of businesses are anti-fast food fast food, contrasted with high end cuisine, and are anti-fusion, anti-gourmet.

Instead a relationship with the owner/worker/cook can be formed. It is a culinary relationship through consumption. They are associated with a sense of "home" and as she pointed out, some people go to their favorite spot straight from the airport.

The close relationship between the customers and owner/workers creates a "flex plate" where preferential treatment or extra portions are exchanged. Yano said that there is a emotional resonance that is part of their reality. These shops are interpreted as homestyle cooking, "grandma's food." They have associated memories. The ionic timelessness of the kitchen.

Yano made a distinction between "programed cheeriness" and actual relationships. I found this particularly interesting since I have worked at both franchised places (Starbucks, Jamba Juice) and a very small restaurant (lol where I was the only waitress and the owner was the only cook). She said that at these okazuyas there is not a manual that instructs people how to act (as there is at Starbucks and Jamba), that people legitimately have relationships with their customers.

I found that interesting, because although I can agree with the fact that they probably see the customers on more of a personal level, I can imagine that happening franchises as well. Or at least companies hope will happen within their stores. Starbucks for instance. I worked in the headquarter building, so as you can imagine, the regulars worked upstairs and were fiercely loyal. I knew names, everyone knew the regular's drinks. We would make small talk. Is that that much different than what the okazuya workers share with their customers?

It made me really think, because when I get back to Seattle I have worked it out so I am getting rehired at Starbucks. And if it is the case that I cannot really make those personal connections, I feel like I have been failing at my job all along.

I am so dying to go to Hawaii now...

No comments:

Post a Comment