March 21, 2023

Teshima Restaurant Aims for the Century Mark

Teshima Restaurant knows a thing or two about navigating turbulent times. Established in 1929, the store survived the Great Depression and the World War II to become a thriving establishment known locally for a fusion menu featuring Hawaiian, Japanese, and American fare.

In fact, according to Joni Izumi-Nakamoto, granddaughter of founder Mary Teshima, her grandmother’s generosity and deep love of cooking helped the people of Honalo, Hawaiʻi, survive the war’s hardships. “The local people were thankful to Grandma because Grandma would let them just sign for their meals,” she said. “She would just record everything. If they paid, they paid. If they didn't, that was fine.”

Exterior of a restaurant with a new neon sign with the name Teshimaʻs on it.

photo by: Teshima Restaurant

Exterior of Teshima Restaurant with the new neon sign purchased with the award from the Backing Historic Small Restaurants Program.

Teshima’s not only survived the war; it went on to thrive. The restaurant opened in 1957 at its current location on the Māmalahoa Highway that encircles the Big Island. It sits next to the Daifukuji Soto Mission, the historic Buddhist temple where Shizuko Teshima—who went by the name Mary due to pronunciation difficulties by visiting friends—learned skills like sewing, cooking, and properly offering the tea ceremony. The second floor of the restaurant has long served as a meeting place for community groups, including the local chapters of the Rotary and Lions Clubs.

In 2013, Mary Teshima passed away at the age of 106, leaving her children and grandchildren to ponder the future of the restaurant. Then, 2020 brought a new crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic. Like restaurateurs around the globe, the family struggled to keep the business running, and survived thanks to the local patrons who kept buying takeout meals during the lockdowns to keep the beloved institution afloat.

“We thought hard about [closing],” said Izumi-Nakamoto. “And we couldn't because people kept coming. The local people were the ones who supported us through that time.”

Teshima’s: Getting Ready for a Century of Feeding a Community

Now on the other side of that existential threat, Teshima Restaurant is forging ahead towards its 100th anniversary of its founding, with assistance from a Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant, a joint program between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express. Teshima’s was among 25 restaurants that received $40,000 grants from the program in 2022 to add outdoor seating, revamp their exterior physical spaces, and support other operating and marketing costs.

The program launched in 2021 as a way to support restaurants that had been impacted by the pandemic. In 2022, the program focused on small, independent restaurants that have been operating in historic buildings or neighborhoods for 25 years or more.

Black and white historic restaurant of a restaurant in Hawaiʻi.

photo by: Teshima Restaurant

Historic photograph of Teshimaʻs estimated to be at the time of opening. The platform at the top of the building was where they threw mochi and coins for good luck as part of the grand opening celebration in 1957.

January 24, 1957 inscribed into the ground indicating the founding of Teshima Restaurant.

An inscription in the stone marking the opening of the current home of Teshimaʻs with the name of the contractor below the date.

According to Seri Worden, a senior field director with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Teshima Restaurant “ticks all of the boxes” that the program was looking for, calling it “an anchor in the community in the way a lot of restaurants are.”

“It’s a central meeting point for families and community groups,” said Worden. “There’s a beautiful mix of food heritage.… It’s really an amazing and beloved restaurant with strong, strong local ties and a commitment from the family to keep the restaurant going.”

From Shrimp Tempura to BLTs: Building a Fusion Menu

In 1929, Mary Teshima, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, opened the F. Teshima General Merchandise Store in Honalo, located in the Kona region of the Big Island. Mary and her husband, Fumio Teshima, would spend long nights grinding blocks of ice under the light of kerosene lamps to offer customers a rare treat at a time before refrigeration was commonplace: ice cream.

During World War II, at the behest of homesick American soldiers, she learned how to make hamburgers. When Grandma Teshima, as Mary is known to her family, turned the general store into what is now Teshima Restaurant, the hamburgers remained.

Four people standing in front of a restaurant. The image is in black and white.

photo by: Teshima Restaurant

Historic photograph of a group of people in front of Teshimaʻs. From L-R: Atae Uchida, cook, Mary Teshima, (next two were friends, names unknown), and Hidetoshi Taniguchi, who opened another branch of KTA Supermarket (started in 1916 in Hilo) in Kailua-Kona in 1959.

From there, the menu continued to grow. The restaurant’s signature dish, shrimp tempura, was introduced by a cook hired from Japan in 1960. Today the restaurant serves a wide selection of Japanese dishes like shrimp tempura, omelet fried rice, sukiyaki, and fresh sashimi alongside Hawaiian-inspired dishes such as fried ahi tuna and American fare like hamburgers and BLTs. Most of their fish is purchased from local fisherman.

“The flavoring all kind of evolved,” said Izumi-Nakamoto. “It is, I think, authentic as we remember it but still after all these years, I'm sure it's changed. Just a little bit.”

As Worden said, “heritage foodways are defined as the historical, cultural, and social life of food. For this program we were looking for sites that contribute to the history and identity of its community or neighborhood, tells an inclusive story about cuisine and community in America, and has a compelling historical narrative. Teshima’s is that restaurant.”

Teshima’s Looks to the Future and Restores Iconic Features

In addition to giving the exterior of its iconic building a fresh coat of paint, Teshima’s used part of the Backing Historic Small Restaurants grant to update the joint vintage “Teshima’s” and “Fine Foods” signs on the restaurant’s north entrance, which are prominent landmarks in Honalo. That meant refreshing the lettering on the signs and installing LED lights to illuminate it from within. The grant also allowed Teshima’s to add neon strip lights along the outside of the first floor, a longtime feature of the restaurant that had fallen into disrepair.

For Izumi-Nakamoto, the facelift was a way to convey to the community the family’s intentions to keep the restaurant going.

Preserving the original exterior, according to Worden, is key to maintaining the identity of a restaurant like Teshima’s. “If you take away those elements that make these restaurants special and unique then you just have another chain restaurant,” said Worden. “So we want to make sure that with this grant that we're helping keep those iconic features of these beloved neighborhood community assets.”

The family that owns Teshima Restaurant sitting under a historic sign of the original general store and a photo of the original owner Mary Teshima.

photo by: Teshima Restaurant

Christian Izumi-Baltero, manager and VP (and great-grandson of Mary Teshima), Noelani Greene (Mary Teshima's second eldest great grandchild), general manager and president, and Mary's oldest son, Haruo Teshima.

Teshima’s also used part of the grant to add outdoor benches for patrons to sit on while they wait for a table to open up or for a take-out order to be ready. Izumi-Nakamoto realized the need for that seating when she ran into a friend who explained that she had recently been in line to eat breakfast at Teshima’s, but had left without dining because standing had been difficult for her elderly mother.

It is just the latest example of Teshima’s meeting the needs of the locals who have kept their business going.

“It makes people aware that we're trying to preserve and carry on grandma’s legacy,” said Izumi-Nakamoto. Thanks to the community’s encouragement, and the family’s dedication, Teshima Restaurant will live on to mark a century and more in the years to come.

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Nathalie Alonso is a freelance journalist and children's author based in New York City. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Refinery29 and TIME for Kids. She holds a B.A. in American studies from Columbia University.


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