FROM OAHU TO VEGAS, ELENA'S WINS FANS
Beautiful, lush Hawaii is a siren call heard around the world, one Theo and Elena Butuyan found impossible to ignore. In 1969, they left behind the comfortable life they had built for themselves and their two children in Dagupan City, of the Pangasinan Province in the Philippines, where Elena was a teacher and Theo an accountant. "We had read in the newspapers and heard from other people who left that Hawaii was the paradise island of the United States of America," Theo Butuyan says dreamily. "So we left the Philippines for greener pastures."
The Butuyans settled in Waipahu, Oahu, where they opened Elena's Home of Finest Filipino Food, a small lunch counter with six seats, and served home-style Filipino cooking. "You want to know why we named it after Elena?" Theo jokes. "So she would work hard."
Work hard they both did, quickly building a steady and loyal stream of customers – the majority of which were not, as might be expected, from the Philippines. Theo explains: "Filipino immigrants like to cook their own food at home [so] we cooked for the local people Japanese, Chinese, Tongans, Americans, Samoans, and Filipinos born in Hawaii."
The café's early success with the local population of all stripes led the Butuyans to expand. The following year, the couple moved to a larger space, doubling the capacity to 12 seats and featuring a small bakery. Open long hours, from 5AM to 10PM, Theo and Elena struggled to manage the business, Theo's full-time job as an insurance salesman, and their growing family, now numbering three young children.
In the beginning, Elena did most of the cooking, showing off the expert skills she had honed in her former role as a home economics teacher. Customers were hooked, prompting Theo to take lessons from Elena in the kitchen, in order to help keep up with customer demand. Cooking as a team, the Butuyans offered traditional dishes such as Chicken Adobo (chicken marinated in vinegar and soy sauce), Lechon Kawali (crispy roasted suckling pig), Pinakbet (pork sautéed with bitter melon, eggplant, and other vegetables) and Pansit (Filipino stir-fried noodles).
Ongoing success had them on the move again a year later, to a space in a shopping center with seating for 80, which they renamed Elena's Restaurant. The Butuyans continued working hard, bringing in staff, and, in time, their three children. At the height of their careers, a total of four more restaurants opened up in Honolulu, Aiea, Wahiawa and Kahului in Maui.
Even with multiple restaurants, the public still wasn't satiated. This time, the Butuyans decided to open three food carts. Known fondly as Elena's Lunchwagons, the carts make stops along a set route around the island of Oahu each day, serving favorites from the main restaurants.
"We started [the carts] about 20 years ago, long before everyone else," Theo says. It's been really good for the restaurant," noting that it brings their food to customers who can't make it to the brick-and-mortar location during the day. So popular are the trucks, in fact, that all bear a caveat that in the case the food runs out, the trucks reserve the right to go home early.
The Butuyans have never needed proof of their success beyond their popularity with customers, but they have received it⎯in spades. Elena's Restaurant has won the Ilima Award, a mark of distinction for Hawaiian dining, five times and in two categories: for Best Filipino Restaurant and Favorite Filipino Restaurant.
More significant, perhaps, is that Theo and Elena were convinced by their fan base to come out of retirement, which had expanded far beyond the shores of Hawaii. As the couple grew older, Theo gradually sold each restaurant one by one to their employees, and downsized their 80-seat restaurant to a 36-seat restaurant, a size their children could handle. In 2003, the couple left the restaurant and lunch trucks in the hands of their children, and retired to Las Vegas. But there, as Theo explains, "There are roughly 100,000 Hawaiians in Las Vegas. When we went to the casinos, we kept seeing all our former customers. They said, 'Theo and Elena, we miss your food; we want you to open up a restaurant.' So when our three children came for our yearly Christmas anniversary, our daughter brought up an idea to open an Elena's in Las Vegas with the understanding we would look over the business. Hence, we gladly came out of retirement."
No doubt these customers were especially hankering after Theo and Elena's four trademark dishes, variations of Filipino fried rice wrapped inside an omelet and smothered in a special sauce. So delectable are these creations that the Butuyans patented and trademarked them, in Hawaii and Nevada. That did not stop the many Filipino restaurants that have sprung up since Elena's Restaurant opened from serving very similar dishes. "We are the original," says Theo proudly. "When we first started, there were hardly any Filipino restaurants in Waipahu. Now there are so many." As to the patent/trademark infringements, Theo dismisses them: "Even though the omelets are trademarked, I said, 'Never mind; let them live, too.'"
Their largesse is understandable, given the Butuyans can barely keep pace with the demand for their unmatchable Filipino fare. The question remains, will Theo and Elena ever be able to come out from behind their aprons and enjoy their golden years in Las Vegas?
Follow Elena's on Elenasrestaurant.com Facebook Twitter
Published by permission of The Vilcek Foundation, © 2011. The Vilcek Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to honoring the contributions of foreign-born artists and scientists to the United States. Learn more at www.vilcek.org.