Coconut’s Fish Cafe: A Wish for Fish
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Michael Phillips wanted a fish sandwich. Ono, specifically. As in, the type of fish (also known as Wahoo), and a delicious meal. For an affordable price. On Maui. He looked, and says he couldn’t find it close to his home in Kihei.
Phillips knew what he was looking for and he knew about food, after building a career as a successful restauranteur in California. So, about 10 years into retirement on Maui, he decided to make his own fish sandwich, and share it.
“One day, I was at my church and I was talking to a bunch of guys there and I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to open a restaurant for fun,’ and they said, ‘What?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I think I need a price-point restaurant that all of us can afford to do. You know, we’re not all millionaires that live here on Maui. A lot of people work hard for a living and I need to figure out if I can deliver fish to my customers at a price that I can just make a few bucks from, instead of taking a $40, $50 meal.”
Phillips made it happen. With salads, soups, tacos, sandwiches, pasta and more, his prices range from about $7.99 to $17.95. His coveted Ono sandwich, with fish from Hawaiian waters that’s cut daily, costs $11.50.
Coconut’s Fish Cafe opened at the Azeka Mauka shopping center in 2009, during an economic downturn that saw many other businesses closing. He named the restaurant after the family cat, Coconut, who’s featured in the logo drawn by Phillips’ daughter. In the six years since, the 1,100 square-foot “hole-in-the-wall,” as Phillips calls it, has been recognized by 20 different publications around the world.
“Our first real national attention was Travel + Leisure Magazine rated us the 8th best local restaurant to eat at like a local in the United States,” explains Phillips.
Coconut’s goes through 500 pounds of fish and welcomes around 1,000 diners every single day. Lines can be long, but staff members at the order counter move fast. Phillips credits the restaurant’s popularity to made-from-scratch menu items, family recipes, affordable prices, well-trained employees and, above all, his loyal customers.
“It’s all a frenzy of excitement of how our customers are told about the food, and then they go out and tell people, then they walk in and tell somebody else,” Phillips says.
Employees encourage diners to grab some extra napkins, eat with their hands and “embrace the mess,” especially when it comes to Coconut’s famous fish tacos, which are made to be unique with seven “layers of flavor” and 17 different ingredients, including Ono, MahiMahi, mango and coconut cole slaw.
“It’s not Mexican flavors, it’s not greasy and it’s not fried,” Phillips explains. “I wanted to create an island taco, number one; number two, a heathy taco; and number three, something way different than what people are used to. The flavors change at the level of when you start to bite on the taco, and as you move through it, literally in the middle is where the best part of the taco is, because then you get it all together.”
Phillips uses many of his mother’s recipes for house-made salad dressing, cocktail sauce and even seafood chowder, which sells out every day. The soup uses milk in its base, since Phillips says his mom couldn’t afford cream when he was growing up.
“People thought I was crazy when I put this on the menu: ‘Oh, you’re not gonna sell any soup,’ and I said, ‘You watch and see,’” Phillips laughs. “In Hawaiʻi, where it’s 85-degrees every day, we sell out of soup here every single day here.”
But turning a quaint family recipe meant for maybe a dozen people into a menu item that can serve hundreds of diners a day is a serious process for Phillips.
“This has been the challenge for us from the very beginning; when we started serving 100 customers a day, 200 customers a day, 300 customers a day, 500 customers a day, 1,000 customers a day, we then had to be a chemist to figure out the recipes,” he says.
Phillips has expanded not only his recipes, but also his restaurant’s reach. He’s bringing Coconut’s Fish Cafe to the mainland with 22 franchise operations, working hard to keep the ingredients, flavors and island vibe consistent.
“So when you go to the mainland and see our restaurants there, you think you’re in Maui ‘cause it looks just like this one, with the custom-made surfboards, the menu being exactly the same, and the flavor and taste and the fish being exactly the same,” he says. “Everything we sell here at Coconut’s and everything we try to do, we’re highlighting the fish.”
Phillips takes some extra steps to bring the aloha spirit to those mainland operations. Cultural practitioner Kumu Kimokeo Kapahulehua happens to be a great friend of Phillips’ and travels to bless the restaurants as they open.
“Kimokeo is the lifeblood of our restaurant,” Phillips says. “We’re trying to teach the culture of Hawaiʻi to our employees on the mainland, and what this is all about. So Kimokeo, being the most aloha-spirited person that we have on the islands, we are fortunate that he is our Hawaiian culturist. So we bring him out to all the restaurants, we do the regular Hawaiian blessings, we do all the regular stuff that you would do to open a restaurant here, and then we tie all of our employees in to that ʻohana.”
As 3,000 square-foot Coconut’s chains open their doors across the ocean, Phillips never forgets where it all started, and tries to transport an authentic expression of aloha from Maui to the mainland.
“Mainland restaurants do not get to say ‘hi’ and ‘bye.’ We really train, train, train,” he says, “because we really want the atmosphere not only to feel like you’re on Maui, but we want the aloha spirit there.”
Phillips honors not just where, but why his business began.
“Just wanted a simple fish sandwich,” he laughs. “I wanted an ono burger every day, I wanted it close to my house, I wanted my neighbors and my friends to be able to eat here and walk out of here and say, ‘Hey, that was pretty good!'”