By JODIE CHIEMI CHING
What is a waffle dog? In Hawaii, this hand-food looks something like a long UFO – basically a hot dog encased in a waffle with delectable crispy corners.
While it looks futuristic, it came to Hawaii in the late 1920s and is now considered a food legend.
But for the Asato family, the waffle dog also symbolizes a legacy rooted in gambari (persistence), kökö (filial piety)and gisei (sacrifice). Waialua-bornNiseiAgnes (Gusukuma) Asato and her husband, Jiro Asato (from Kita-Nakagusuku, Okinawa), featured the distinctive treat at their KC Drive Inn and other family restaurants for decades.
The Early Years
The first KC Drive Inn was founded by George Knapp and Elwood Christensen in the late 1920s. It was located on the edge of Waikiki, which was mostly swampland before it became the major tourist destination that it is today. Unable to turn a profit, the partners sold the restaurant to Jiro Asato, one of their managers, for $350. The Asatos struggled through the Depression and World War II; Jiro even collected scraps for pig slop to sell or trade as supplemental income. When he died at age 55 in 1960, Agnes was left to run the business and raise five children: Elsie, Mildred, Helen, James and Roy.
Agnes acquired the first Wisteria restaurant in 1971. She worked hard with the help of loyal employees. Agnes’ son James remembers the night cook, Seizen Hanashiro, who was also a judo instructor. “He was small but strong and energetic,” James recalled.
And Mildred Yoshida helped care for Agnes’ children and worked as a waitress for 50 years at Wisteria.
The Heyday of the Asato and Gusukuma Family Restaurant Empire
Many locals have fond memories of the Wisteria Japanese restaurant on the corner of King and Piikoi streets. Local comedian Frank Delima was a regular at the restaurant and the star of television commercials for both Wisteria and KC Drive Inn. In the 1970s, the late Gabby Pahunui entertained at Wisteria with the occasional impromptu slack-key guitar session.
Over time, the Asato empire extended to KC Coffee Shop and KC Annex, both in Moiliili; Mr. Waffle stands in Kailua and Waipahu; KC Snack Shop in what was then Holiday Mart on Kaheka Street; the Wisteria restaurant in town and the Wisteria 2 in Kaneohe, according to a 2006 Honolulu Star Bulletin article. But the flagship and the one that outlasted all the others, the newspaper said, was the drive-in, located first in Waikiki and then on Kapahulu Avenue.
There were more restaurant expansions on Agnes’ Gusukuma side of the family. Her older sister, Alice Nako, and her husband owned Like Like (pronounced lee-kay lee-kay) Drive-Inn, which closed last year after 67 years as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down business.
Younger sister Norma Tamashiro and her family owned Sei’s Family Restaurant, and brother Jack Gusukuma ran the coffee shop in the Central and Nuuanu YMCAs as well as Jack’s Drive-In. All of these restaurants have shuttered their doors over the years, but running them during their heyday required all hands on deck – and sacrifice.
“All the family had to help,” James recalled. “We couldn’t go to dances and school activities.”
But the family’s effort paid off in the 1970s and ’80s. At that time, there weren’t a lot of fast-food places. The Waikiki location was open 23 hours a day serving the post-surf and disco crowd.
Former employee Dane Okabe remembered his first days at KC Drive Inn in the 1970s in a 2016 article in Thrillist. “The first day on the job, they teach you how to make the waffle hot dog batter,” Okabe said, adding that the ingredients were mixed and kneaded by a large, round machine. “When you dump everything in — the eggs, flour, and sugar — you get a mess. Especially when you’re first doing it, you don’t know what you’re doing, so you get even more of a mess. You can tell everybody the first day they work because they look all white, like Casper. It was like an initiation.”
Fast Food in the ’80s Threatens Mom-and-Pops
But the family restaurant empire, like other locally owned mom-and-pops, was threatened by the incursion of national fast-food chains such as McDonalds, Jack in the Box and Burger King from the 1980s and into the 2000s.
Still, the family’s second generation kept the restaurants going. Elsie and Mildred worked full-time at the family restaurants. Roy was the company president and Helen and James moved to California but came back to Honolulu after their father’s passing. By the 1980s, Agnes had 10 grandchildren; some worked at the restaurants. Helen’s son and daughter, Wendell and Arlene, worked for many years with James’ son Dayton until KC Drive Inn closed down.
On July 30, Agnes Asato passed away at the age of 95. She is remembered as an energetic, hard-working woman who also made time to enjoy life. “She flew in a hot-air balloon over Africa when she was 71 years old and rode a camel in Egypt,” recalled Roy, adding that she also travelled to Australia to see Halley’s Comet.
Long Live Waffle Dogs!
Although the KC Drive Inn flagship restaurant closed in 2005, the waffle dogs made a comeback a year later at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i’s annual Ohana Festival. Once the word spread that the iconic hand-food was back, so were the lines of nostalgic customers.
Today, Dayton is carrying on the waffle dog lineage. He remembers being a 7th-grade custodian of the KC Snack Shop at Holiday Mart on Kaheka Street, where Don Quixote is currently located. It was tough work.
“I used to clean the grease trap by hand,” he said. “Today, trucks come and suck it out … I would get a plastic container; I would dig out all the crap and dump it in the trash bags.” The Asatos hired someone to help him, “but he ran away,” he added with a laugh. “Nobody argues that I had the worst job.”
Waffle dogs could usually be found at fundraisers and Obon festivals, although the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down those events for now. And under normal circumstances, the waffle irons could be rented out with Dayton to assist (http://facebook.com/kcwaffledogs). Even as the pandemic eases and businesses reopen, however, the future holds questions: The waffle dog equipment is more than 40 years old and while some mechanical parts are replaceable, the molds that shape the treat are not.
“They don’t make them anymore,” Dayton told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in 2018. “I worry about them wearing out – we’ve gone through so many.”
For now, KC’s waffle dogs and Ono Ono (chocolate and peanut butter) Shakes are here to stay. For those curious or nostalgic, waffle dogs can be found at Hawaii’s Favorite Kitchens (hawaiisfavoritekitchens.com) in Kapahulu.