A Longhi His­tory

Res­tau­ra­teur Char­lie Longhi keeps the fam­ily busi­ness grow­ing strong.


Res­tau­ra­teur Char­lie Longhi


He spent his youth surf­ing the reef break at Shark Pit and grew up to be a rock gui­tarist play­ing with bands, in­clud­ing His Boy El­roy, the Im­mi­grants and the Funk-A-Holics.

“I re­mem­ber days in La­haina surf­ing in the back­yard with the sun go­ing down. Mo­ments when the sky was pur­ple and there was a full-moon ris­ing. The waves were six-feet high and per­fect. Those were some of my great­est days,” says Char­lie, who left a mu­sic ca­reer, that in­cluded a con­tract with Vir­gin Records, to re­turn to Maui to help his cel­e­brated fa­ther Bob Longhi grow the fam­ily busi­ness.

It turns out that you can take the man out of the restau­rant, but you can't take the restau­rant out of the man.

“We're from an Ital­ian French food fam­ily. My fa­ther was a great cook, a great foodie and a great eater. How could I be in any other busi­ness?” he says.

Char­lie's de­ci­sion to give up a ca­reer in mu­sic to be­come a res­tau­ra­teur could have been a lyric in his fa­ther's song. The el­der Longhi abruptly moved to Hawai‘i in 1976 af­ter tak­ing his in­surance staff on an in­cen­tive trip to Maui and de­cid­ing to stay.

Char­lie re­calls peo­ple thought his fa­ther was crazy when he bought the orig­i­nal Longhi's, lo­cated at 888 Front Street in La­haina, Maui, from a char­ac­ter named “Cap­tain Jack.”

“My dad came into the restau­rant for a Greek salad and it had no feta cheese. He's not happy,” Char­lie says. “The owner comes out and says he's go­ing out of busi­ness and is look­ing to sell the place. He in­vites my dad to his house for some good feta. My dad said, ‘No won­der you are go­ing out of busi­ness, you keep all the good feta at your house.'”

The orig­i­nal Longhi's is now 40 years old. The fam­ily opened up a sec­ond lo­ca­tion in Wailea, Maui 15 years ago and a third one at Ala Moana, which re­opened in Ko Olina on O‘ahu's west side about a year ago.

Char­lie's fa­ther died in 2012 and now he and his older brother Peter own and op­er­ate the restau­rants, which em­ploy about 140 work­ers. He and his wife Kelly, whom he met on the beach at Tur­tle Bay, are try­ing to share the legacy with their 7-yearold son Leonardo Luigi Longhi.

Char­lie says his child­hood ex­pe­ri­ences made him re­al­ize the im­por­tant role that par­ents play in shap­ing the life of a child. From his mother, Sally, he says that he learned the art of hos­pi­tal­ity. He learned the im­por­tance of good food and of hav­ing an open mind from his fa­ther.

“When we were kids back in New York, we would go out to eat and dad would let us pick the place. I re­mem­ber he wanted Can­tonese, but I was be­ing a brat and in­sisted on Ital­ian,” Char­lie says. “When we got there my fa­ther told me to or­der a dish that turned out to be pasta with white an­chovies from top to bot­tom. His dish was tongue. I kind of learned my les­son and started embracing my fa­ther's phi­los­o­phy, ‘No neg­a­tivo.'”

By the time he was in his pre-teens, Char­lie had de­vel­oped a so­phis­ti­cated palate. He also had ac­quired cop­ing skills and restau­rant in­dus­try ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I was work­ing in the kitchen as a young child, then I be­came a host and worked my way up. I was man­ag­ing by de­fault at 16,” he says. “My Dad was an in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ter. Grow­ing up in the 70s and 80s


mo­ments, I took care of him more than he took care of me. I had to learn fast.”

While Char­lie was a restau­rant in­dus­try nat­u­ral, mu­sic was his pas­sion.

“La­haina was a hap­pen­ing mu­sic scene. It was one of the most rock­ing towns in the world,” says Char­lie, who grew up jam­ming with Wil­lie K and once owned a record­ing stu­dio with his child­hood friend artist Chris­tian Riese Lassen.

Peter Ma­haraj, the group chair­man and CEO at the Maharaja Group, says his friend Char­lie's path i sn't sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing

that the f irst Longhi's started as a cult rock 'n' roll restau­rant. For­mer Bea­tle George Har­ri­son even dedicated “Soft­hearted Hana” to Bob Longhi on his “George Har­ri­son” al­bum, Ma­haraj says.

Char­lie was work­ing at his fa­ther's La­haina restau­rant when cus­tomer George Ben­son, the fa­mous vo­cal­ist and gui­tarist, per­suaded him to at­tend the Berklee School of Mu­sic in Bos­ton and pur­sue a ca­reer in mu­sic.

“Mu­sic be­came my love. I was a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian for 15 years, but it was ver y chal­leng­ing. Work­ing to get a record deal with Vir­gin Records was with­out ques­tion one of the great­est chal­lenges of my life,” he says.

Ma­haraj, a de­vel­oper and en­ter­tain­ment pro­moter, says Char­lie be­came such a great gui­tarist that even ma­jor stars en­dorsed him.

“When Jour­ney 's Neal Schon and Jonathan Cain heard him, they said he was, ‘ world- class' and that he could tour with any­body,” Ma­haraj says.

Char­lie also got mu­si­cal en­dorse­ments from Steve Miller, Mick Fleet­wood and Steven Tyler, he says.

Although Char­lie achieved com­mer­cial suc­cess in mu­sic, fam­ily needs and changes in the in­dustr y inf lu­enced his de­ci­sion to move back to Maui.

“My fa­ther con­vinced me to come back. He needed help opening new restau­rants. It felt good, it felt right, ” says Char­lie, who moved to O‘ahu 14 years ago to open the Ala Moana Cen­ter lo­ca­tion.

Char­lie says the Ala Moana lo­ca­tion thrived for 13 years mak­ing it through the re­ces­sion un­scathed by keep­ing the fam­ily 's val­ues of “treat­ing cus­tomers the way that you would want to be treated” and “don't cheap out on the in­gre­di­ents.”

How­ever, on­go­ing con­struc­tion at Ala Moana Cen­ter f in­ally ne­ces­si­tated clo­sure, he says.

“We were look­ing at f ive years of con­struc­tion and it's an open air restau­rant,” Char­lie says. “I stuck it out as long as I could, and then in the sum­mer of l ast year, saw an op­por­tu­nity at Ko Olina. I brought all the em­ploy­ees that wanted to come.”

The new­est Longhi's i s an­other open- air lo­ca­tion that sports many of the clas­sic dishes that its founder made fa­mous, while of fer­ing cus­tomers a more i sland ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Char­lie i s his dad. He's a great cook, a good busi­ness­man. But then there's this i sland guy who i s hel­luva mu­si­cian and just wants to share stuf f,” Ma­haraj says. “He's a per­fect f it for O‘ahu's l aid­back west side, where the l argest pop­u­la­tion of Hawai­ians live. He f its the en­ergy there.”

Ma­haraj says he was touched when Char­lie cried dur­ing the Hawai­ian bless­ing of the Kapolei lo­ca­tion and af­ter wards hugged ever y em­ployee.

“It was as if he had f in­ally come home,” he says.

Char­lie says he has no re­grets about clos­ing the Ala Moana lo­ca­tion or walk­ing away from his mu­si­cal ca­reer. Still , when he ref l ects on the changes, he re­calls some of his fa­ther's wis­dom.

“He used to say, ‘One of the hard­est things to do in life and one of the eas­i­est is to let some­thing go,'” Longhi says. “He was right.”

Char­lie Longhi, seen here on a ski t r ip, is pas­sion­ate about mu­sic— but he couldn't say no when his dad asked him t o come back t o Maui and help out t he f am­ily busi­ness. "It f elt good, it f elt r ight," he says ( phot o cour­tesy Char­lie Longhi).

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP LEFT: Longhi grew up sur f ing La­haina waves; Bef ore re­turn­ing t o Maui t o help his dad grow t he res t au­rant, Longhi wor ked as a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian f or 15 years; Longhi with wife Kelly and son Leo.

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