WILLISTON, N.D. – Hawaiian Mike Kim used to joke with his wife about moving to North Dakota to get some space from their families.
“That just seemed like the most remote place you could possibly go,” Kim said.
Little did he know that North Dakota would turn out to be his ideal location to open a restaurant.
Kim and his brother-in-law Leo Wong recently opened the Hawaii Fire Grill in Williston.
The Hawaii natives had dreamed about running their own restaurant and became inspired after Kim learned about the North Dakota oil boom watching NBC’s Brian Williams.
“I thought, ‘I can’t get a better opportunity than that,’ ” recalled Wong.
They took a scouting trip to North Dakota in December and visited Williston, Watford City and Tioga.
After talking to people and waiting in line at local restaurants, they realized that demand for more dining options was huge.
“The biggest thing that scared us, more than the business, was the cold,” Wong said.
Both were born and raised in Hawaii. Wong, 53, most recently lived in Sacramento, Calif. Hawaii is still home for Kim, 38. Each has a wife and two kids at home.
Their biggest hurdle was finding a kitchen in an area with a shortage of retail space.
After calling around, they learned that the former Elks Lodge in downtown Williston is being renovated and the kitchen isn’t being used.
Kim and Wong worked out an arrangement with Joe Lundeen, the owner of the building, to use the kitchen for a carryout and delivery business while the lodge is being renovated. Later, the Hawaii Fire Grill will move to another location in the lodge that will have room for dining.
Their restaurant has an unconventional set-up, but it’s developed a steady stream of customers in just a few weeks.
Customers call, text or email their orders. They pick up their food through a back alley kitchen entrance with no sign. Some customers have driven around the block several times before finding it.
The restaurant also offers delivery and catering for job sites and man camps in the Williston area.
Kim and Wong do everything themselves – working from 9 a.m. to sometimes 2 a.m. – with only one part-time employee who helps in the evenings.
Their menu features teriyaki rice bowls with the option of chicken, pork or beef. They also have specials, such as luau pork and beef stew. They say the secret is in their sauce.
“What we’re doing here is like what we do at home, we’re just mass producing it,” Kim said.
They’re living at the Elks Lodge while it’s being renovated. But in a few months they’ll need to find a place to stay.
This isn’t the first business venture the two have been on together. They once spent a few months traveling around Texas in a camper selling novelty toys at carnivals and fairs.
“It wasn’t very successful, but it was fun,” Kim said.
Wong owned a travel business in Sacramento for more than 20 years, taking people to Hawaii, Mexico and the Bahamas. He sold the business three years ago after seeing a decline in customers he attributes to the economy and the Internet.
Kim has worked a variety of jobs, including food service. Most recently, he had been running an online business that he said “was not tremendously successful.”
They plan to keep their new restaurant small but would like to add one or two more employees so they can return home to visit their families.
Wong said he’s been impressed with how many customers have thanked them for coming to North Dakota.
“It’s amazing how nice and welcoming people are,” Wong said. “In Hawaii, that’s how we are, too.”