A Longhi History
Restaurateur Charlie Longhi keeps the family business growing strong.
Restaurateur Charlie Longhi
SPORTING A COLORFUL ALOHA SHIRT AND A SHOCK OF SUNBLEACHED BLONDE HAIR, CHARLIE LONGHI LOOKS MORE LIKE A SURFER OR A rocker than a restaurateur by birthright.
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
"MY FATHER WAS A GREAT COOK, A GREAT FOODIE AND A GREAT EATER. HOW COULD I BE IN ANY OTHER BUSINESS?" – CHARLIE LONGHI
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.