Mixed feelings: Old Lahaina Lūʻau employees ready to make new memories as it reopens

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Old Lahaina Lūʻau. (2.21.24) PC: Wendy Osher

Sitting at the edge of scorched Lahaina Town and makai of the Lahaina Cannery Mall, the Old Lahaina Lūʻau reopens to tourism for the first time since the Aug. 8 wildfire. To put it lightly, the return is expected to be a heavy occasion for employees and spectators.

Kawika Freitas, who is director of public and cultural relations for the Lūʻau, has always had the ability to juggle the cultural with the financial. He balances both when it comes to spearheading the return of tourism to West Maui.

“A return to tourism will really depend on what we have available for them to do,” Freitas said. “When we get more is when there’s things to do on the West Side. It’s very limited, and I’m trying to work on bringing that back.”

Earlier this month, Freitas commented on the Hawaiʻi Tourism Authority’s Mākaukau Maui campaign, which he said focuses on flipping the narrative that had described Maui as “closed” following the Aug. 8 wildfires.

While he supported the assertion that Maui’s employees are physically ready, Freitas advises caution with the message of Mākaukau, adding a new prop into his dexterous Lahaina juggle: being the emotional and mental well-being of thousands of employees.


When a person says “mākaukau” it is not the same as “ua mākaukau” – indicating that something has passed into a state of readiness – or “e hoʻomākaukau” – where a group is commanded to get ready. This word “mākaukau” is just as much a question as it is a declaration: Ready?

“They’ve got to be careful because, yes, we may physically feel like we’re ready and feel like we need to for our own person and our employees – they have to come back to work – but emotionally and mentally, I don’t think they’re 100% ready, not everyone,” said Freitas. “There are going to be times when certain things may trigger something that may cause them to have to step away, take a breath.”

Last October was the first time that longtime employee Paula Gamboa had seen the Lūʻau since the Aug. 8 wildfires. The emcee of Old Lahaina Lūʻau over the last two decades had been preparing for a Las Vegas fundraising event with the Lūʻau. While gathering her costumes for the Vegas show, she recalled how the once “pristine” and “impeccable” lūʻau grounds had become “deserted.”

It was strange for her, but she said after several months of restoration, she feels ready. “Being kind of the pioneers of having to start the beginning processes of healing and rebuilding is an honor to be a part of,” Gamboa said. “We do have a lot of pressure to do it right.”

Maui-native Spencer Piano, in his 20th year as an employee at Old Lahaina Lūʻau, is focusing on making good memories. “It’s very emotional knowing that once was will never be the same,” said Piano. “Also, spiritually, the balance has been shifted, knowing that what has happened to Lahaina will definitely be a historical event, and for those lives which were affected and lost – those material things could never replace someone’s life.”


For server and Tahitian drummer Piano, the reopening symbolizes a necessary step in healing. “I believe that the opening of the Lūʻau is a positive movement,” Piano said. “You can’t stay in the same spot but to open the doors and to move forward is part of our healing. For me, I feel that if you just stay in the same place, there’s no forward movement.”

“We’ll have fun tonight,” he said. “Enjoy yourself, focus on the good side and not really too much on the bad. It’s going to be emotional, but just know that we’re all there to make good memories.”

Several precautions were taken by the company to ensure they were ready, including enhanced training and refreshers.

“The really important thing in this situation was for them to just bond as employees like they were before,” Freitas said. “It was important to welcome employees back home.”

Many of the company’s pre-fire 380 employees have now returned to work.


“It was really good how they brought us back to Moaliʻi, to their workspace,” said Piano. “We are so close that we consider ourselves family and our workspace – where I’ve been employed for so long – it’s like a second home.”

Echoing this sentiment, Gamboa said returning to work for some is like medicine. “It feels like they’re returning to their home,” she said.

All of the employees found something new with their time off. Piano said it was spending time with his family which had been a blessing in disguise. Gamboa dedicated time to Hua Momona Farms, which had supplied anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 meals out to displaced West Side families. All were wondering if and when the Lūʻau would reopen.

The reopening date was picked up through a combination of emotional and economic motives. Surveys were first sent to all employees, about half of whom had lost their homes to the wildfires.

With unemployment running out on Feb. 10, management felt the time to reopen was imminent.

Ordering new equipment, rethatching roofs and bringing life back to the tropical grounds pushed reopening back months after they intended. But on Feb. 29, the Lūʻau hosted a private event and on March 2, it hosted a Lahaina Restoration Foundation event, its first public event, which featured Hawaiian community leaders and a blessing.

Appointed members of the Lahaina Advisory Team, five Lahaina residents (three of whom lost their homes to the wildfires), also urged the Old Lahaina Lūʻau to open sooner than later, according to Freitas.

The reopening of the only lūʻau on Front Street marks a major shift in tourism in the state, with visitor levels having suffered post-fire. “It’s really needed in the economic situation, not only for Maui, but for the state,” Freitas said. “I really feel that this fire has affected parliament statewide.”

Visitor arrivals to Maui are now up to their highest levels in five months.

Regarding entertainment and food courses, Freitas said that “the Old Lahaina Lūʻau will not act like nothing ever happened.” Prior to the show, a short segment recognizes elements of Lahaina’s passage toward healing.

Freitas said all five businesses of Nā Hoaloha ‘Ekolu – a West Maui restaurant group including Old Lahaina Lūʻau, Star Noodle, Leoda’s Kitchen and Pie Shop, and Hoaloha Bake Shop – are expected to be open within the next couple months.

The fire-damaged central kitchen, where the old Star Noodle was located in Lahaina Industrial Park, prepares much of the food for these business. Its reconstruction delayed reopening dates for these businesses. Recently, the kitchen, like the hopeful employees of the Lūʻau, is now operational – operating at less than 100% but enough to get back to work.

JD Pells
JD is a news reporter for Maui Now. He has contributed stories to TCU 360, Fort Worth Report and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. JD interned at Maui Now in 2021. He graduated from the Bob Schieffer College of Communication at Texas Christian University, with a bachelor's in journalism and business in 2022, before coming back home to Maui with the purpose of serving his community. He can be reached at jdpells@pmghawaii.com.
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