From Fine Dining to Food Truck
Would it surprise you to learn that the folks behind your food truck plate lunch might have come from the kitchens of some of the island’s most beloved and respected restaurants—places like Spago at the Four Seasons, Merriman’s of Kapalua, The Hāliʻimaile General Store, or Mama’s Fish House? It’s true.
The explosive popularity enjoyed by food trucks and trailers in the past few years has attracted some unique entrepreneurs to Maui’s roadsides—chefs with storied careers who plied their trade at swanky places prior to going mobile.
Tom Sribura didn’t go to culinary school. The owner of the Thai Mee Up and Ono Teppanyaki food trucks cut his teeth right here on Maui at a special place called Mama’s. A native of Thailand, Sribura arrived in Hawaiʻi at age 11. He worked various low-level restaurant jobs before landing a position in the famed kitchen at Mama’s Fish House in Kuau on Maui’s North Shore. For 23 years, he worked his way up to a position as one of the storied beachfront restaurant’s kitchen managers.
“I got there when I was really young,” Sribura, 46, recalled. “I always worked at Mama’s, learning the high standards and food quality and everything.” After conflict in the kitchen led to a sudden lay-off, he found himself without a job—and with a very short resumé.
Food trucks were enjoying a boom in popularity, so six years ago he and his then-girlfriend, Brandie, opened Thai Mee Up, a Thai-fusion food truck currently located across from the Costco gas station on Haleakala Highway, with two other locations at Kulamalu and South Maui Gardens in Kihei.
“Yeah, I got let go at Mama’s and then I was applying for a lot of places and I said, ‘I guess I could do my own thing, you know what, I’m going to give myself a chance,’” Sribura recalled. “They [Mama’s] said I could come back down the road, but I ended up liking this way more. I’m my own boss and I think that’s the best thing that happened. Just meant to be.”
Choosing the style of food that he wanted to prepare was a no-brainer.
“I told my girlfriend when we first started doing the business, ‘We always gonna get to eat what we want to eat for dinner all the time. We always gonna be happy eaters because we get to eat what we like to eat.’” The couple, who have since married, often cook whatever they feel like having for dinner and then offer it as a daily special.
“Thai food is what I’ve been eating all my life and she enjoys Thai food, too, so we’ve always cooked Thai for dinner for our friends. Now we get to cook what we like to cook and we get to charge people, too,” he jokes.
“My mom was a really, really, really good cook,” he recalled, “and I wish I had learned way more from my mom, so I try to remember as much as I can what she made for me.” His late mother Sang Bull once hosted a cooking show on Akaku Community Television in the 1990s. Like she taught him, experimentation is part of the fun.
“Most of what we do is not like any Thai restaurant out there, because we just cook what we enjoy eating,” Sribura explained. “It’s Thai style, but we throw a lot of local influence in, too.
“Basically, everything that we do is what our customers kind of suggest to us,” he said.
Kahului locals, especially Filipinos, enjoy pork. So in response, he added some pork dishes to his menu. “We mix the flavors with some Thai curry and stuff like that and we make deep fried pork ribs. One of our top sellers ever since.”
A lot of people asked for fried chicken for their keiki, so he said, “Okay, let’s do something with fried chicken where the little kids can enjoy it—not so spicy, but still had a lot of flavor. So, we came up with the lemongrass chicken. We just play around quite a bit and, if it tastes good, it’s on the menu.”
His curry noodles are a good example. “It’s kind of like curry with pad Thai mixed in. We came up with the curry noodle because we have a lot of customers who want to eat pad Thai and at the same time they want to eat curry. So, we make the pad Thai, but we don’t put the regular pad Thai flavor in it. We add the garlic and most of the other ingredients and then we top it off with curry. It makes a nice pasta.”
With success came growth. He quickly opened a second location upcountry in the Kulamalu Town Center, then branched out into Japanese food.
“We love eating steak and lobster, and we love shrimp and scallops—we love seafood—and we used to have to go all the way to Lahaina to get that,” Sribura complained. So, he opened a second food truck business called Ono Teppanyaki next door to his original Thai food truck.
“We’ve been doing really well with that truck, too,” said Sribura. “We sell a really expensive scallop, it’s like 30 bucks a pound, we use nice lobster tail. Most of our ingredients are as good as Grand Wailea or Mama’s Fish House.
“We buy really, really high-end stuff and sell it at food truck price. So, if you don’t feel like dressing up and you want to eat something really good at a pretty decent price, that’s our whole concept,” explained Sribura.
A huge tent covers the dining area, so customers don’t have to wait in the sun or rain for their food, and a new stage has been built to host live music performances. If the tables are full, Sribura said that his customers know that they can also sit and eat in their own car or take it home.
New competition came in the form of a second food truck court on the same street which opened last year on the other side of the Courtyard hotel, tapping into the same flow of Costco customers that he relies on. Sribura claims it hasn’t really hurt his business.
“We’re still busy all the time,” he said. “Busier sometimes than we’d like to be. But we have a lot of people who call and say, ‘We can’t find you guys. We’re at the food truck park and we can’t find you’ because that’s the first thing they see.” Once the car is parked, most folks will just find something to eat there. Sribura remains philosophical about the situation. “You know what? They have family to feed, too,” he said. “It’s a blessing for all of us to be so close to each other.”
Sribura recalls visiting the late-night market back home in Thailand as a child. “Of course, it’s all Thai food, but it’s like 20 or 30 vendors right next to each other and they all have their own little touch. Even though it’s all similar stuff, the flavors are different and they’ll bring a crowd just to get that flavor. People like different styles, you know.” The same is true of the food truck business. “If your food is good and the price is good, don’t be afraid of competition.”
“I love for my customers to see me eating at other Thai places all the time,” Sribura said. “Certain places, they do things better than others. I like try them all.”
Competitive pricing is key and it surprises him how much some of his competitors charge for a plate to go. Overpriced food trucks may get one-time visitors but, Sribura said, “You know you’ve made it when people come back.” Even tourists can become fans. Some visit Maui regularly and become repeat customers.
Finding good employees, streamlining the business, expanding the menu, and maintaining consistency are his current challenges. He now has about 20 staff and expects to hire more.
Thai Mee Up’s newest location at South Maui Gardens in Kihei features a massive 400-square-foot trailer that Sribura calls “bigger than most restaurant kitchens.” Joking that it might have been cheaper to open a brick and mortar restaurant, he claims that he paid about $150,000 for kitchen equipment and another $100,000 for the trailer itself. Calling it the “mother ship” he says that’s the location that he’s trying to spotlight now.
Of the food truck phenomenon, he said, “We feel really blessed. It gives all these chefs opportunities to showcase what we’re capable of and it’s working out for a lot of people.
“My advice to anyone with a new food truck is to do something that they really enjoy, that they like to eat, rather than trying to make other people happy,” he suggests. “Sometimes you make things for other people to try to blow their minds, and it just doesn’t work out. You derail your whole concept because you’re trying to please other people. Just cook what you enjoy.”
Some are lured to the food truck business thinking it’s easy money, Sribura said, but it’s not. “A lot of people don’t realize how much work it is. It’s really, really hard work, especially when you’re starting out. You end up working so many hours, stocking, prepping, cleaning up.”
The worst thing that can happen, he advised, is if you get too busy just starting out. “It gets kind of crazy really fast. You got to work ten times more and you got to find more people and it’s easy to burn out.
“You see how Barack Obama looked before his first term and now?” he said of the graying former president. “I feel like that.”
Would he ever return to fine dining? “No, I really enjoy working for myself,” he laughs. “I would never go back.”