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Today on Hawaii’s Best, Jason Donez, General Manager of Leilani’s on the Beach, joins the show. Jason gravitated to the industry because it is something different every day. Plus, he fell in love with the people.
Leilani’s on the Beach is in one of the most beautiful locations in the world. They approach their guests by carefully crafting and sharing the Aloha Spirit. Locals are proud to celebrate their special occasions, and visitors from all over the globe find their home on Maui at Leilani’s. Their unique concept bridges the generations with an ambiance that creates a contemporary sense of place while honoring the powerful tradition of Hawaiian culture.
Jason says that no one cares what you drive or what clothes you wear while on the island. Really what matters is how you treat people. Are you willing to be unselfish and give? Take the time to learn about the traditions and culture of Hawaii.
The restaurant is not only about the food but about the entire experience. Jason makes sure guests at Leilani’s are having a great time. The restaurant seems to attract the best employees – when people work there; they feel the loving family-like culture. Guests say it feels like home and often will visit three or four times during their vacation.
During this episode, learn more about how Jason leads his team, his favorite activities, and about the Aloha Hour at Leilani’s.

In This Episode

  • About Jason Donez [0:10]
  • About Leilani’s on the Beach [3:50]
  • How Leilani’s honors Hawaiian culture [5:40]
  • Showing respect on Hawaii [9:20]
  • About the menu [11:55]
  • How Jason leads his team [21:30]
  • Jason’s favorite activities [26:30]
  • Making reservations at Leilani’s [32:35]


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How Does Hawaiian Culture Influence the Flavors at Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice?

How does Hawaiian culture influence the flavors at Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice? Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice takes you on a flavorful journey through the essence of Hawaiian culture. Each mouthwatering bite of their shave ice captures the vibrant spirit of the islands, with tropical flavors like pineapple, passionfruit, and coconut. This authentic connection to the local ingredients and traditional recipes truly immerses you in the rich culinary heritage of Hawaii at ululani’s hawaiian shave ice: a flavorful journey.

Mahalo for Listening!

Jason: It really is just about stoking people out, man. But again, just leading with that Aloha spirit, it's just making sure we establish that right off the bat.


Aloha, Welcome to Hawaii's best podcast. Learn the stories behind Hawaii's best experiences, influencers and businesses. Discover everything that makes Hawaii the Aloha state and now your host Bryan Murphy.

Bryan: Aloha and welcome to episode 20 of Hawaii's best. Here in Hawaii's best we explore Hawaii's best experiences, businesses and influencers and we get to hear the story from the people behind them. I'm your host, Brian Murphy and I just want to say thank you so much for joining me today and to stay up to date on feature episodes, hit that subscribe button and that just means a whole lot to me because that just allows other people to be able to find this conversation about Hawaii. And if you're anything like me, you love Hawaii, you love hearing about Hawaii, you love going to Hawaii, so hit that subscribe button. It mean the world to me, I am so pumped for today's conversation and it's been a minute since I’ve uploaded an episode. We got hit hard with the flu. Myself and with family, if you don't know, my wife and I, Allie, we have, we have three girls and we all got hit at the same time a couple of weeks ago during Thanksgiving week and you could probably still hear it in my voice a little bit, but there's so many conversations that I have recorded from amazing people that I just couldn't put this off anymore. I just, I had to get this episode out. So coming up, there's going to be amazing new episodes coming up at towards the end of this year and also at the beginning of next year. So be sure to like you mentioned, subscribe and drop a rating as well. That just helps other people be able to find this conversation. On today's episode we're talking with Jason Dunn. He is the general manager, at Leilani's on the beach in Lahaina on Maui that's on the West side. You can find Leilani's by simply going to www.Leilanis.com. On a recent trip over to Maui, Jason and I grabbed some time to talk about his journey to the Island of Maui and his role at Leilani's and how that has evolved over time. Now during our chat, as we overlooked Kaanapali beach, we were greeted by multiple pods of dolphins and some Epic shore break. And these are moments that I just had to leave in this conversation. So during our chat we were interrupted a couple times and I just wanted to share that experience with you as raw as it was, just all the activity that we were experiencing there on Kaanapali. So let's go ahead and let's talk story with Jason from Leilani's on the beach.


Bryan: Jason, welcome to Hawaii's best. How are you doing? 

Jason: Oh, doing good, man. Stoke. Yeah. Thanks a lot for having me, man. Really excited to do it. 

Bryan: Absolutely. Yeah. What's your role here at Leilani? 

Jason: I'm the general manager here at Leilani's, so yeah, I’ve been with TS for just over 21 years now. So just super blessed and really stoked to be a part of something real special. You know, I started off at hula grill, our sister restaurant next door as a bus boy back in 1998. 

Bryan: That’s a little while ago.

Jason: It was a little while ago, man. It definitely was. So yeah, I kind of just graduated from college and finished and was just coming out to spend the summer with one of my best friends and you know, for three months and here we are 21 years later. So you probably hear that story quite a bit. But yeah, I’ve been really fortunate. So, you know, if it wasn't for landing here with TS, I don't know if I would have stuck around. So I got really lucky that I got in the right environment. 

Bryan: So TS is kind of the parent company of a few different spots? 

Jason: They are, yeah. TS restaurants, Hawaii and California. So yeah. So we've got our restaurants here on Maui. We've got ourselves, we have hula grill, chemos down on Lahaina, which is our flagship restaurant. We also have Duke stop Maui up in North beach and we've got Duke's Waikiki, which everybody knows about. [04:13 inaudible]. Yeah, you definitely got to do that. We have hula grill right upstairs from there. Then we've got Kiyosaki's and Kawaii and Duke's in Kawaii also. We got our restaurants in California. I am not downplaying the Kali guys, man. 

Bryan: 1998 you came over. So what was life like before 1998? 

Jason: Well, I went to college in Oregon. I played baseball in college, so I was, yeah, my intent was to graduate college and teach and coach and you know, and which I say, I am coaching the company. But also coaching and teaching here too, you know, so I definitely still get to do what I love, you know. But yeah. So the playing days were over, and you know, trying to figure out what was going to be next. 

Bryan: So obviously you found some sort of love and passion even in the hula grill that you've worked in the restaurant industry for this long and now managing Leilani's. How has that journey, what have you fallen in love with in this place, in this line of work? 

Jason: Man, well, it's really the people, first of all, you know, and I'm just a people person, just, you know, I was once told, you make your world as small as you want it to be, you know. And so just sitting down next to the stranger and saying hi, you know, but the industry just kind of, you know, I gravitated to it because of that, you know, I love the energy of it, you know, something different every day. Kind of like what we call the high-speed cruise control, you know, just not knowing really what to expect, but really it was the people that gravitated me to the industry. You know, I just enjoyed it. It provided a real flexible lifestyle, you know? So that was really cool too. And once I got here doing it, like in this location, right on the water, was such an unreal company. It was, I mean, I really thought I had my dream job as a bus boy back in 1998. You know, I wasn't really thinking about anything else. I was just blown away that, you know, where I grew up and kind of my whole journey, like I ended up here on Maui, you know, doing what I was doing. So that was, it was a lot of pants me moments for sure. It's still is. 

Bryan: Obviously this location, I mean, we're like literally on the beach, Leilani’s on the beach, it's literally on the beach. 

Jason: Yeah. Literally it's on the beach. With a good enough arm you can throw a rock in the ocean, you know. So yeah, we're really fortunate. Very fortunate. I mean, we have one of the most beautiful locations, you know, definitely in the state, if not in the world, you know, so when people do get here, it's, I think you can see it on the website. And then pictures and hear about it. But when you actually sit up here and take a look at it, it's, you know, it's a postcard moment. You know, this has been the backdrop for thousands and thousands of Christmas cards. 

Bryan: It's beautiful. Now, how did this all start? 

Jason: Well, Leilani’s opened up in 1982. So this was, you know, Rob T-bone and Sandy Saxon, our founders who man, they're no longer with us, but their vibe, their mana, their you know, their Aloha, you know, their legacy just lives on strong just in the culture of our company and you really can feel them in the buildings. You know, there's something about our restaurants that when you walk into it, you know, you're in a TS restaurant, but you know, just started with a friendship with those two and grew into what it is today. You know, they first opened up chemos, that was our first restaurant, our flagship restaurant. And, you know, one thing led to another where, you know, one of their big things was location, you know, you know, in any of our restaurants, whether they be in Hawaii, California, the locations are prime. So, you know, they really committed to making sure that was going to be a foundation for opening up new restaurants. And, and it served us really well. But we also know we can't just sit back on our location alone. We still got to deliver, you know, we like to say here that, you know, it's the major leagues of the restaurant industry. You know, it's kind of like playing for the Yankees, you know, the expectations are high and Kaanapali beach just got voted best beach in Hawaii again, you know, and it's been voted best beach in the world, you know, so many times. So to be in this prime location that you know, there's a lot of expectations, you know, and rightfully so, but the pressures of privilege, right? So it means we're doing something right. So we welcome it. And you know, we feel like, and we deliver on a consistent basis, not just here at the Leilani's, but every one of our restaurants. 

Bryan: Now obviously creating a great experience, great location, great food, great drinks. There's also a whole other component of that is being respectful and sharing the Hawaiian culture with everything you do. I mean, that's a unique thing to the Hawaiian Islands. How has Leilani’s doing that?

Jason: In a number of ways, but you're absolutely right. Any successful business in the state of Hawaii has made sure to pay respect to the culture, to the [08:45 inaudible], you know, and doing things the right way. It goes so much deeper than you know, than the decor, you know, and things of that nature. You know, it's really about making sure you instill those values in your people. Most people that work in the hospitality industry aren't from Hawaii, you know, so they, you know, they found their way here just like I did. And those that really enjoy it and really get the most out of it are the ones that have really taken the time to learn about, you know, the place that they live and the culture. What's great about working for our company that's just instilled in everything we do. And so when you do become an employee, you know, part of our Ohana, you know, with TS [09:23 inaudible] in the beach, it is something that you recognize right away is different than probably most of the places you've worked at. You know, so whether it's a respect for the culture and even just teaching our staff about the Hawaiian culture, you know, it might be through, you know, teamwork through, you know, taking them out on an Outrigger canoe, you know, with the importance of everybody working together. Just so you know, which is, you know, if you moved here from Wisconsin and you're now in an Outrigger canoe because you got this job right on the beach and you know, you're paddling in the Pacific ocean and learning about teamwork, you know, you're going to recognize pretty, I'm getting chicken skin, check it out thinking about it. You know, that you're in a pretty special situation, you know, just our respect to the [10:02 inaudible] terms of just making sure, you know, our sustainability, you know what I mean? And in protecting our wonderful oceans that we love. I mean, that's our playground, you know, so we know we have a responsibility to make sure that we're, we're keeping it clean, we're taking care of it, we're educating, you know, we're also at the forefront of our industry and making sure that we're doing the right thing and making good decisions. Even right down to the type of fish that we serve and when we serve it. You know, making sure that we are doing our part to make sure that the oceans are, you know, are fill with fish and, you know, we're not being irresponsible with that. So we do as much as we can supporting local agriculture.

Bryan: So not forcing anything, just serving what the land gives you. 

Jason: Serving what the land gives you, you know what I mean? And not taking more than you need, you know, which is a Hawaiian way, you know, and just always being ready to share and to give if needed, you know, and we have shafts and all of our restaurants that are really passionate about that, which, you know, really makes a big difference for us. It's just a common shared thing. It's not even something we think about or as a goal. It's just, you know, we just know that that's the right thing to do. And so we do it. And I think, I guess really feel that it comes off as genuine. And like I said, you feel that vibe when you walk into our restaurant. So but it's special. You know, the Hawaii is a really, really unique place and you can come here for a week or even 10 days or two weeks and don't get me wrong. The obvious the ocean, you know what I mean, and all those other things are really beautiful. But when you get to know the culture and when you really get to know the people, that's what really makes Hawaii what it is, you know.

Bryan: And anytime we're over here visiting like we feel like family. And I think one of the things that I’ve found, maybe you could speak into this a little bit. Obviously, there's a lot of people who weren't born and raised here in Maui specifically and now they are living here. The Hawaiian culture, the Hawaiian people are so welcoming. But you also need to come with the shoes off respect if you will. And learn, yes, learn the culture but also come with an open-handed respect. Maybe you can speak into a little bit, maybe someone's coming to the islands for the first time. How would you encourage someone coming and visiting here with that same respect? Because we talked about the Hawaiian Islands and obviously technically, they're part of the US, but I think there's something about like you get a passport stamped and you go to London, you're more aware of the culture and what to expect. However, the 50th state, maybe there's so much differences than just like go into Wisconsin or go on to Oklahoma or whatever. Maybe speak in to that a little bit.

Jason: You're absolutely right. You hit in the nose. One thing I like to tell people is what's cool about Hawaii is nobody here cares what you drive, what kind of clothes you wear. You know, really all that matters is how you treat people. And I think in terms of true Hawaiian people who are welcoming, like you said, that's really all that matters. And you can, you can see through that. You know, I think you know, so just how you treat people I think that's the most important thing when you're here. You know, are you willing to be, to be unselfish and give, you know are you willing to take the time to learn about a tradition or a culture, but more importantly why it is the way that it is, you know, not just on the surface. Yeah. It's still amazing how many people come here and forget that we're part of the United States, you know, and you know, that some people, maybe they've been to Mexico or the Caribbean or something like that and so, you know, they think it's just kind of a free for all. But you know, we still have laws and things of that nature. But I think, you know, in terms of advice for anybody that's coming to visit here, it's just like you said, be open hand to be open minded, but really just take the time to talk to people. It might be the valet at your hotel, or you know, the person at the airport checking you in or at the rental car place or in line at the grocery store. You'd be surprised that in this place, what's unique is when you just take that time to say hello and smile. How many I don't want to see doors it opens, but just opportunities to experience what aloha really is. I have two brothers and it was, God, this was a long time ago, probably 12 to 15 years ago. My little brother visited me, and I remember him calling my mom to, you know, all excited about it. And one of the things he said, he goes, mom it is so cool. You walk down the street here and people say hi and smile at you. And at his age, he was probably like 11 or 12 at the time. But that was something he noticed, you know, where him living and growing up in Southern California where people put their heads down and do everything, they can to maybe not try to do that. Yeah. You know and so I just think it's just, again, sharing that spirit, you know.

Bryan: I love that. Well, let's talk a little bit more about Leilani's. If you could maybe describe what can someone expect coming here? Maybe a little bit about the menu and those options. 

Jason: We have amazing chefs. You know, we have an amazing culinary team here just headed by Ryan lucky who you know is, you know, grew up here in Hawaii as well on the West side. So you know, his commitment to the community and the Island and the ina and understanding the culture is really special for us because our guests get to feel that through his and his team's cuisine. You know, we have two different menus, downstairs our Beachside grill, more of our, I would, I guess I would call it more of a casual menu, although the food is really elevated down there in terms of bar food. Nothing too stuffy though, you know what I mean? It's still super comfortable. We never want it to be an intimidating experience for people, you know. But the food is amazing downstairs. We are one of the leaders in bringing craft beer to Hawaii and especially the West side, which has now become pretty industry standard.

So we've got 18 taps downstairs of things that you'll only get here. I'm supporting a lot of local breweries, you know, Maui brewing company. And what Garrett's done has been awesome. We've had a longstanding relationship with Corona brewing company. Now we've got Kohala, which is here, you know, on in Lahaina, which is doing an amazing job as well. So we feel like our concept speaks to everybody. That's one thing we really, really take a lot of pride in. You know, we think there's something cool about coming in here and your board shorts and sitting upstairs and having, you know, having fresh lime fish or prime rib or lobster and overlooking the ocean. You know, and when people calling out like was there a dress code? It's like, just make sure you have a shirt on, and you have shoes on and there's something unique about that, you know, because we want it to be, and not that you can't come in here and get dressed up and celebrate a special occasion. Cause we get that all the time too. We want it to be for everybody. You know, the menu, there's been a lot of emphasis is placed on fresh, local ingredients. You know, just consistent execution and high quality. Also just making sure our staff and our people, you know, can confidently and describe our mini door, I guess. Cause we really, we want people to come and maybe who they, you know, a lot of the ingredients in our menu are pretty foreign or even at time, it's hard to pronounce, you know, and so, you know, you'll see people like pointing at it, you know, and we want to help guide those people into something that maybe they normally wouldn't have tried out you know, and you know, try something [17:01 inaudible] or, you know, ask questions. And so we just try to really, we always say we're welcoming people into our home. And so how would you treat your guests if you're throwing a party at home, you know, and we say, well, the first thing you do is you'd make sure the place is clean, right? You clean it all up and you know, you make sure you got everything dialed in, you get to the store, make sure you bought, you know, the best ingredients you possibly could for the food that was on the menu that night. You know, you'd probably go out and maybe get a new outfit cause you want to look sharp. You know, that's kind of our uniform, right. And then, you know, once they arrive, the first thing you do is you right there at the door greeting everybody with a smile, you know, and you're making sure they're comfortable. They know where everything's at. Here's the restroom, you know, whatever you guys need, I got you. You know, and then while they're here, you're checking on them, making sure they got everything they need and when they leave you thank them and invite them to come back again. And we're just doing that like 1400 times a day, you know and that's kind of what it is. You know, we're welcoming you into our home. We want it to feel like a home. We want it to be comparable. That's why you see some of the furniture and the way it was designed to feel like that, you know and that's really what it is. And we know there's a lot of restaurants here and people can choose to go anywhere. So we feel really blessed and privileged when they choose us. And so we want to make sure we hold up our end of the bargain, you know. And we always feel like if we can get them in the door, they're ours for life. You know, they're ours for life. You know what I mean? And it is about the food. But you said it earlier, it's about the entire experience for us and it goes back to our culture and what Rob and Sandy said years ago and what has been kept alive through, you know, through all of our, you know, leaders and people that have had influence in our company. And that's really just that entire experience, you know, is making sure people have a good time. If you don't have a genuine feeling for stoking people out, then you're in the wrong business for sure. But forever and ever what it will always be our competitive advantage is our people. And we seem to attract the best people.

Our training programs and systems are super tight. But again, it goes back to our culture, right? Culture will trump operations any day of the week. And when people come in here, I think they feel that and like, wow, this is, this is cool, man. I can dig this. I can hang out here for a little while. And you know, we get people that come back two, three, four times during their one-week vacation, you know, and then we get people who find us in their last year at night. Like, ah, wish we would've come here sooner. You know? And we love that. 

Bryan: No, just looking around, it feels, it's this kind of sophisticated yet relaxed, homey vibe. Like it's not too stuffy. It's not trying too hard. Yeah. Like it feels like you could just hang here. 

Jason: Yeah. You know, like you can, it's a great place to hang.

You know, you can just hang here, you know, and it's got a lot, you know, we've got live music every day, you know, from three to five o'clock. So we've got everything from really traditional Hawaiian music to reggae to Jowaiin, you know, and then we have, we have a day where it's like where a group named JD on the rocks had been playing here for years. They become a staple. It's all like, it's classic rock and you know, and Freebird and those types of things. It's a whole different crowd and you know, it's just, it's really cool. Like I said, we appeal to so many different people and that's important to us that no matter, no matter who you are, what you do, that you feel like you can come in here and feel really comfortable in part in, like part of the Ohana, you know, and just sit and hang, like you said.

Bryan: What are some of your favorite dishes here currently? 

Jason: We're well known for our fish tacos. They've been voted best on the Island for years. I'm seeing you guys nod your heads and assuming you heard about them, right? And you probably looking forward to having them after we're done. Fish tacos are unreal. As much as I tried not to eat him, it's hard not to because they're that good. And you know, people ask me all the time like, what are some of my favorites? And I really do love everything on the menu. Upstairs though, our fresh wine fish is unreal. You know, you're not going to get it any fresher anywhere else in the world. At least in my opinion, you won't. And just what our chefs do with that delicate product is amazing, you know, and really not doing too much to it. Letting the fish speaks for itself, you know, and because you can, you can drown it in a bunch of sauce or salt and butter and who doesn't like that? But we really, we really believe in the quality of our product and we don't want to hide that, you know, under a sauce or anything like that. [21:05 inaudible] do here is really do a company the natural flavor of the protein, whether it be the quality of beef that we get or the fish that we get, or you know, any of the shell fish or seafood that we have as well. Three out of every 10 people that come in this restaurant order fish tacos. I mean, that's how prominent of an item it is. And this is what we've become known for. Upstairs we've got a Cracker Parmesan crusted preparation for fish that's been on the menu since day one. You know, we're still one of the only restaurants that still serve prime rib and crab legs. And it's funny, every time food tastings come up, we kind of think like, man, is it time? Is it time? But you know, it's important to be thinking about where you want to go, but you also have to remember what made you who you are, you know? And again, that kind of goes back to, I think some restaurants either don't think through their evolvement, you know, or what they want to do and maybe change too quickly too fast and forget about the people that made them who they are. You know so for us what's really important is that for those people that have been coming here since 1982 that when they walk in here, they still feel that same vibe and those menu items are, some of those menu items are still on the menu, you know. And then we do have to be thinking about how do we get another, you know, 37 years out of it. So we do have to evolve our concept and our menu, but I think we have something that appeals to everybody. That's always a big fear too. And you know, our guests have been coming here for a long time, them walking in here and cause like the worst thing they could ever say is like, man, it just doesn't feel the same anymore. You know, that hurts. You know, we really work hard to make sure we're being thoughtful. 

Bryan: [22:38 inaudible] delicate balance there.

Jason: There really is. No, there's a delicate balance because our, the industry has become more and more competitive and you know, we used to be the only ones doing what we do. And there are a number of restaurants out there now that are, you know, Hawaiian regional cuisine or are emphasizing, you know, they're fresh Hawaiian fish and you can walk up and down this beach and you'll, it'll look like a copy and paste of our menu on a lot of menu boards, you know. But that also leads to the fresh ingredients that are available. But you're right, it is a balance between making sure we're evolving, we're staying current with industry trends, peeling to a new guest, which we'll have to continue to capture. But while still being true to who we are, you know and so when those people do walk in here, but that's the thing too. We always say, you know, even if we do make a menu change or remove an item, we're still the Leilani's. We even here like we have, we have guests that are coming here for years and have loved those menu items that aren’t on the menu anymore. But we'll make them for them. You know what I mean? You know [23:38 inaudible]. We do that, we do that. I mean I'm probably taking a big risk like saying this on a podcast, but you know, we don't have certain liquors anymore, but you know, when certain people call, we know that we're going to bring in a bottle of Beefeater gin while they're here. We're going to be bringing a bottle of wild Turkey or yeah, we're going to bring in Miller light for you even though we don't normally sell it, you know, or Hey, we'll make sure that we have that tuna melt that you used to love. You know what I mean? Or we'll do the stir fry that you used to love because that's important, you know and that might just be a couple or you know, one individual, but you know, that we're that place for that individual, you know, and we don't ever want them to go someplace else, you know.

Bryan: I mean, what you're talking about is serving loving people with Aloha. How do you lead your team with an Aloha at the forefront of it? 

Jason: You know, it's not hard to do because I just feel like it's who I am. You know, I'm a big believer that leadership needs to be genuine, you know. 

Bryan: People can smell it, right? 

Jason: I think so. I mean, I just come into work every day just stoked and excited about what I'm doing, it's because I enjoy what I do. You know, I enjoy the people that I work with and you know, I enjoy meeting new people and making new friends and, I enjoy, you know, just watching like a family, you know what I mean? Just smiling, laughing, having a great time, you know or getting to go out there during an unbelievable sunset and take a family photo for them, you know, because you know, somebody had to take it right. So dad's getting left out. Its usually dad takes the picture, mom and the kids get in there, so running out there really fast so I can get that photo for them. So they have that memory and it really is just about stoking people out. But again, just leading with that aloha spirit, it's just making sure we establish that right off the bat. And when we're hiring people, we tell them, we're looking for personalities. All I'm trying to do is find somebody that will fit under our culture, if possible, make it better. You know, we can't teach enthusiasm. I can't teach aloha. I can't, I can't teach those things. You know, so if you bring those things with you, we can teach you how to do everything else and you'll be really successful, it'll probably be the best job you've ever had. It will be fulfilling and rewarding in so many more ways than the money that you leave in your pocket, you know, and you'll make lifelong friends doing it. I think that's what's really cool cause we have 200 people in this building alone. 

Bryan: Really? 

Jason: Yeah. So we're 200 employees roughly in Leilani's on the beach alone. And I see people cry all the time when they leave this job. It's because they're going to miss the people that they worked with. And that's a cool part of what I get to do also is watching people succeed and go on and do new things, you know, or come back to visit and now they've got their family started and, or they tell you, man, I learned so much when I was here.

Bryan: See that’s a mark of a great leader. Not just keeping people.

Jason: Definitely, definitely. You know, and but I’ve been fortunate enough to have really, really patient and really great mentors myself. You know what I mean? Orange cross, our general manager next door, who the grill has been like a father to me here, you know, and, you know, really set the standard for what a leader should be. You know, people like Peter Merriman and, you know, Tammy Fukagawa and just so many more, you know in our company that is just really given a lot to me, you know, and it's really their time, you know, they've given their time, you know, and so how do you not pay it forward after that, you know. But I had really good examples, so and I got a really great team, so it's not too hard to do. 

Bryan: That's great. So how do you unplug and what are some of your kind of maybe hobbies and stuff that you can unwind? Obviously, we got this amazing beach in front of us. 

Jason: We do. And we're lucky to have, like in my opinion, the world's greatest playground. Right? But now, I mean I’ve got, I’ve got kids. So what do you see? Whale. Dolphin? Anytime a podcast is spontaneously interrupted by a pod of dolphins. [27:42 inaudible]. 

Bryan: [27:45 inaudible] experience firsthand Leilani's on the beach, Dolphins flipping in the air. It's not guaranteed though. 

Jason: But you know what? You guys must have good karma because they came, they came to say hi to you guys know. All that matters is how you treat people. So you guys have obviously been good to everybody since you've been here. So the dolphins are saying what's up? I mean, but even just that, it's a perfect example. Like when you're sitting here, all of a sudden, you'd look out, you're like, no, wait, wait. You know, it's kind of like whale season when the whales come in super close and they're breaching or you know, they're spotting. It's just, it's unreal. 

Bryan: We've taken in whale this season on Ohaoo before, but I keep hearing stories about whale season right here. 

Jason: Oh, whale season in Maui is Epic. Yeah. [28:33 inaudible]. Yeah, I want to get a little closer. 

Bryan: Now they're just showing off. Look at them. Oh my goodness. 

Jason: None of this ever gets old for me, you know? And it never does. You know and I think my mom wants told me, you know, she goes, some people save a lifetime for one week there, and you're lucky enough to be able to live there. Don't ever take it for granted. And you know, I try to live by that advice always. 

Bryan: And you talked about making memories. I mean, that's one of the only things that we keep with us for a lifetime. 

Jason: Isn't it? Yeah, you're absolutely right. You know, and it is, really, it's, for me, it's the people that I meet. You know, I’ve met thousands and thousands of people, you know, since I’ve been working for the company. But it's amazing, you know, and how many people you know, come back and they come to say hi every year. I get to watch their families grow, you know, just it's really, really cool. 

Bryan: So what are some of those activities for you? 

Jason: For me? Well, I’ve got kids, so really a lot of, a lot of my time is with them. You know, I coach girls’ basketball here at Laihana Linda high school, which is the local high school. And I also coach middle school kids, but I also do free training sessions on the weekends, you know, so got kids from ages six all the way up to, you know, well the girls that are coming home from college in the summers all the way up to the twenties, you know, so, you know, I’ve been an athlete my whole life, so I love sports, but, you know, being able to give back to the community is has been really, really special for me. Being a general manager here, that's probably the greatest thing is provided as a platform to give back to the community. Which I love this West Maui, Laihana community, it's so special. It's so unique. So you know, as much as I can, you know, I'm doing that, you know, whether it be, you know, whether it be serving on the board of directors at the boys and girls club or you know, or coaching, you know, or just trying to spend time with my family. That's what I spend a majority of my time doing, getting in the water whenever I can, which isn't as much as it used to be, you know. But definitely doing that and just being outside and being outdoors, you know, and, and trying to be selfish about my time with my family, you know, and having a few beers with the boys when at all possible, you know. 

Bryan: It's kind of recognizing the season you're in.

Jason: Yeah, it is. You know, and it's definitely that. And just trying to pump the brakes. I've always been a gas pedal guy, you know, so the more recent, I'm trying to pump the brakes and slow things down and you know, because you can make every excuse in the world and not do something right. But once you finally get together and have a beer with one of your friends that you haven't hung out with in a couple of months, you are like, well, that wasn't really that hard to figure out. You know, sometimes it's just making a right turn instead of a left turn. 

Bryan: Figuring out those priorities. 

Jason: It is, you know, it is, and it's easy to get caught up in the grind with work and things like that, you know and again, not that I don't enjoy it, but so just trying to be, like you said, aware of the moment and where you're at and you know, and sometimes it's just picking up the phone, you know. 

Bryan: So yeah, I'm sure as a leader you're always trying to respect the moment where everything is at currently and having that gratitude. But also, you're looking forward, vision wise, what is Leilani's looked like moving forward? What are some things you're excited about? 

Jason: We just renovated our dining room upstairs, so we've been open for just over a year now. I'm excited about the, you know, the new crop of employees we've got, you know, which are, they're awesome. You know what I mean? They've been inspiring and they're just wide eyed and excited. So definitely, I'm definitely excited about them. I've got an amazing management team with some, you know, veteran leaders who are really embracing the changes in our industry and evolving. So I'm excited to see where they go with their careers. But they're also setting great examples for the young group of managers that we got too. But I think just concept wise, we just keep getting better every single year, you know, and it blows me away because it takes a lot of hard work. And with the amount of people that we have working here. I've been fortunate to surround myself with people that are better than me in a lot of things and just doing what I can to get to know them and to find out what drives them and how I can support their personal and professional goals. Cause that's really, this restaurant only go as far as its leadership team, you know, and so whether it be the culinary team or the managers that we have here, but just in terms of, of where we're headed, we're doing more and more in the community. You know, just the things we're doing with the Surfrider foundation and being an ocean friendly restaurant and using our standing as a restaurant company and one of the top restaurant companies, if not the top restaurant company in the state to make sure our voice is heard and that we're influencing the industry and we're setting good examples and you know, even breaking ground in other areas. But probably the, the thing I'm most excited about is our legacy of Aloha program. So it's a program that's shared by our entire company, call it legacy of Aloha, but it's really our platform for supporting, giving, educating ourselves or people about organizations that share our same values, you know, so whether it be, you know, whether it be, you know, committing to the Keki of the, you know, of the future, protecting our oceans and our beautiful Ayana and our environments that, you know, we're fortunate enough to have these restaurants in, you know, it's honoring our kupuna, you know, and the people that came before us that are carrying on those traditions and in our teaching and storytelling and still sharing their knowledge. That's what I'm really most excited about, that I work for a company that has out at the forefront. You know, there's really exciting things on the horizon for individual restaurants, for us as a company. But, you know, it makes you feel really proud. You know, I'm already proud to work for this company just as is. And as was, you know, what years ago, but the fact that we are always trying, we're not just always trying to find ways that we can be better, but we're always trying to find ways, like what else can we do? Can we do more, you know, can we do more for our employees? We just recently as part of our legacy of aloha program, started getting scholarships to our staff, you know our board of directors and our chairman of the board, Susie Saxon, who is a daughter of one of our founders, Sandy Saxon. You know, we were doing so much in our communities and you continue to, she's like, wow, we need to do more for our staff.

Bryan: I would assume a lot of your staff is in college.

Jason: Yeah. High school, college, you know. And so we, you know, so we started giving out scholarships, you know, and that's been a really cool thing to do, you know. So just the fact that we are giving back, you know, cause I think Robin and Sandy recognized years ago that this community opened its arms to them and I think they realized right away that they had an obligation and a responsibility to give back to the community, to be aware of the community, to honor the traditions, to honor the culture. And that stayed with us still today and now we're just taking it to a whole another level. 

Bryan: So I'm sure if someone was listening to this right now, they're like, I'm coming to Maui, I'm making my way over to Leilani’s, yeah, no questions. Yeah, I'm there. Do you got to make reservations? Can you just walk up or is there happy hour, maybe some of those logistics?

Jason: Yeah. So, so there's all of it. So we have, so we call it aloha hour here instead of happy hour. Which is really cool. And so that's when three to five o'clock every day. So we have live music every day from three to five o'clock. We have an unreal Aloha, our menu, that chef has put a lot of attention into. Items you can only get during those, during those two hours. 

Bryan: [35:54 inaudible] markdown prices, it's like... 

Jason: Yeah. Cause I think you can go anywhere, and you know, they could knock five bucks off or whatever, but we were like, you know, we want to have some fun. 

Bryan: Incentive to... 

Jason: Yeah and you know, and hopefully have some favors say, Hey, I can only get them from three to five, so I’ve got to make sure I get there. You know, we have, you know, we do discount, you know, some of our, you know Mai Tais, margaritas, we have our Leilani's lemonade, which is a staple cocktail here as well as our, you know, some of our draft beers as well. So, and one thing we don't do, it's not, it's not like we just, you know, discount our domestic drafts. How's that? Huh? Yeah, it is. 

Bryan: Picking up. 

Jason: You guys are getting this show. Dolphins, you got some killer Shore Break. 

Bryan: Someone's on the raft out there. Just like, I don't know what happened. 

Jason: That’s kind of dangerous. You don’t want somebody to get rolled and pitched here pretty soon and hopefully not. But the worst is when like mom's got the kids out there with their backs to the ocean in which you never want to do. 

Bryan: You never want to do. 

Jason: Never want to do right. 

Bryan: One-O-One right there. 

Jason: Tip One-O-One, trying to get the perfect picture and junior boy gets smacked, you know? 

Bryan: So look at keki getting surf lessons right there. How to pop up. Right here. What I love about this stretch of the beach is there's some quote unquote Waikiki vies where you, you know, you can learn how to surf and you can do the Outrigger and all that, but it's this whole very warm, close vibe.

Jason: It is. You know, it's funny, when they first started doing surf lessons here, we kind of were like, Aw dude, this is going to you know, it's going to turn into Waikiki before we know it. But you know, I’ve actually never heard anyone who put it the way you did, and it is still going on, but it's still at a Maui pace. 

Bryan: It feels like it. 

Jason: It is still at a Maui pace, you know, so we have a great relationship with the surf school next door, and you know, it's, again, it's a tight knit community, so we've all known each other for a really long time. But yeah, it is cool. And I get the surf lessons and again, this kind of goes back to, you got to really like put yourself in your guest's shoes. And you know, in their mind, again, we're going to Hawaii, they've got this perfect vision of how every single hour is going to play out. You know, and it's important to remember that we play not just a role and we don't just contribute to their, you know, lunch or dinner, but like to their entire Maui experience, you know, that we're going to be a part of that. Whether it be through a memory like you said, or through a photo or even a negative experience, you know, so which from time to time may happen, but you know, but people always leave here stoked. You know what I mean? So we're going to make a mistake from time to time, but we always make a genuine effort to make it right. But yeah, there is a lot going on. You know, the aloha our menu is unreal. And downstairs, one of the things we really wanted to do is we're always thinking like, what can we provide that other people can't, you know, not just what's proprietary to us, but you know, what do people want? And, so even downstairs, it's not like you're going to come in and just get domestic draft beers at a discounted price. We have, I mean, it's almost all of our beers. So you can come in and you can have you know, a locally brewed beer that you can't get anywhere else on aloha hour price. And I mean, you might get a, you know, something from the chutes brewing company. And if you're, you know, if you're super loyal to Oregon, you're like, all right on, I’ll have that, you know, and we have some of our favorites. You know, I'm a beer guy, so one of the, one of the perks I guess is putting your favorite beers on tap, but we love our Aloha hour, we think it's a great program.

And then in terms of reservations downstairs and our beach side grill, that's our separate menu. That's all first come first serve. So we don't take reservations there, but we do accept reservations upstairs in our dining room. They're definitely recommended, but we also recognize that, you know, when you're on Maui and you're on vacation in Hawaii, you know, hopefully, hopefully people get out of plan everything mode. And so we do understand that, you know, there is going to be some impulsive, Hey, let's go to Leilani's or we're just cruising around. And so we make sure that we have tables available for those people also, you know, you may walk into a little bit of a wait, but we've got an unreal bar, you know, to hang out at. There's an awesome shopping center or there's just a beautiful beach to go and sit out.

Bryan: There is that.

Jason: There is that. Which is, you know, the ultimate waiting room. So it's definitely not hard to get in here for dinner, you know. 

Bryan: When is your upstairs open?

Jason: We open up at 4.45 for dinner upstairs, 4.45 to 9.30. And then downstairs where 11.00 to 11.00. 

Bryan: Cool. Well Jason, thank you so much for your time, man. This was amazing. Anything else that you would love to add about Leilani's or anything we didn't cover?

Jason: Yeah, I just, I mean, come see us, you know, if you'd never been here before then, I mean you won't be disappointed in. And again, it's not just about the food and the beverage. That's hands down going to be some of the best you've ever had, but just come fill the Aloha spirit and the vibe and now you got a helicopter. You guys are getting all of it, man. You know, we really, I just want people to feel what I feel when they come in here, you know, and they will when they do come in here. And if, again if you really want to feel what the Aloha spirit is and what it represents and that unreal welcoming vibe, a place where you can just come like you said and hang out, this is it. It really is. And you know, and by supporting us, you know, you allow us to continue to support the community and our legacy of Aloha programs as well. But you know, I like to think that, you know, we, our values, you know, right at the core and, and the things that we're doing, you know, run consistent with a lot of our visitors’ values. And I think that's what people are looking for, to companies that share their same, their same vision, the same likes, you know, so they can feel like they're a part of something. So, Come join the Ohana man. So there's always room.

Bryan: Yeah. One more thing about this view as we're sitting, I mean obviously the turquoise ocean is beautiful, but you got the [41:26 inaudible] just kind of, you know, greeting you, staring at you. I mean this view is, it's Maui, right? 

Jason: It is, it is Maui, and you kind of laid it out. But when you, again, I try not to take it for granted, but you know even like you can see the pine tree, you see how clear it is. A pine trees on the top of [41:44 inaudible]. 

Bryan: Oh yeah, you can see that.

Jason: You know, so, I mean, when you think about it, you're sitting on one of the most beautiful islands in the world staring at two other beautiful islands, which have their own culture and history, you know in themselves, you know, and beautiful Pacific ocean, there's dolphins, you got to see shore break, you know, there's, you know, mom and dad are, I mean, they're so excited because the kids are learning how to surf, which is something probably they've been talking about since they knew they were coming to Hawaii. You know, it just is, It's really, really, really special. 

Bryan: And what I love about food in Leilani’s, it's all about gathering, right? Food is kind of breaks down those walls and you can experience everything that's around you as well. 

Jason: You can, I think that's, again, a big part of the Hawaiian culture and probably many cultures is that any chance to get together and celebrate, you have to take it right? But it's all about, it's all about food and music and you know, and drinking and friendships and laughing and creating memories. And that's, it shouldn't be too much different hanging out here than it is going to be hanging out in somebody's garage or back door, you know, having a good time.

Bryan: Bring this vibe back home with you. 

Jason: Bring that vibe back home with you, you know and hopefully we can be a place where you can come and be like, all right, man, I can kind of relax a little bit. I can kind of loosen up a little bit. You know again, nobody here cares what you look like, what you drive or what you're wearing. All that matters is how you treat people. And if you, if you show up to Maui, especially at Leilani's with a big smile on your face, you know then you're going to get that back 10-fold, and you're really going to, you really, truly going to experience what the Aloha spirit is. 

Bryan: Beautiful, Jason we could hang out here all day. This is great. 

Jason: Well, you're more than welcome to, man. You're more than welcome to. 

Bryan: How can people get connected with Leilani's and find you guys? 

Jason: Well, you can definitely find us on our website, you know, www.leilanis.com you know, you can pick up the phone, believe it or not, people don't do that very often. (808) 661-4495. You can always give us a call, but obviously all the information you would ever need about our restaurant is on the website, included, know large parties, banquets, anything like that. 

Bryan: And I’ll throw that on the show notes and all the links and all that stuff. 

Jason: Yeah, we're ocean front of [43:51 inaudible] village, you know, Kaanapali beach, you know, on the West side of Maui and come check us out. 

Bryan: I appreciate you and thank you so much for your time today. 

Jason: Absolutely you guys, right on. Aloha 

Jason: Aloha.

Bryan: Well, I just want to thank Jason again for his time and his hospitality from his amazing staff as well. If you're going to Maui, you definitely going to want to check out Leilani's. The food is amazing. Drinks are amazing. The views are Epic, but the vibe and just the feel of the place is world-class. I can't wait to head back over to Maui soon and be able to catch up with everyone there at Leilani's. Well again thank you so much for your valuable time, and I hope that you've found this conversation with Jason from Leilani's on the beach, entertaining, valuable. I hope I brought some joy to your day, and if it did, we'd love for you to go ahead and just drop a rating, a review, and hit subscribe. And until next time, be well. Aloha.


Thanks for listening to Hawaii's best podcasts. Stay up to date on future episodes. Be sure to hit the subscribe button. And find us at www.livehawaiisbest.com.

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Bryan Murphy
Bryan Murphy

Bryan Murphy, owner of Hawaii’s Best Travel, is a certified Hawaii destination expert from the Hawaii Visitors Bureau. He actively participates in the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau as a member and has a strong educational background focused on local culture and sustainability. As the host of “Hawaii’s Best Travel,” a top-30 US travel podcast, Bryan combines his years of experience with valuable insights. He connects with a broad online community, reaching nearly half a million people, and offers a richer, more responsible way to experience Hawaii.