When Samuel Alboy, creator of Mama’s Hawaiian BBQ, talks about his expanding restaurant chain, he emphasizes simple, delicious food for the masses.
And it’s the masses whom he still thanks for keeping his “plate lunch concept” alive in the far-from-the-tropics desert.
Alboy, a graduate of Sahuaro High School and Northern Arizona University, opened his first Mama’s Hawaiian BBQ location in Tucson in December 2010 to a ravenous college crowd and their families right before winter graduation. “We ran out of food 14 times in 10 days,” he recalls. “We could not keep up with making the food. Then, it was crickets after the students left.”
He worried the restaurant wouldn’t stay afloat and said as much to a few police officers who were eating at Mama’s one day. “I told them I didn’t think we were going to make it,” Alboy said. “They told me, ‘Don’t worry.’ ” Those officers told all of their friends, fellow employees and others who flocked to the restaurant until the students returned.
Alboy was so grateful he launched “Thank a Cop Day” and now every month, for one designated day, all police officers eat free at Mama’s.
“We pick a day to thank them for supporting us,” he said.
With four successful locations in southern Arizona, Mama’s Hawaiian BBQ is not merely surviving but poised to expand into Phoenix with its first spot to open in Anthem at month’s end.
“It’s simple, fresh food,” says Alboy, who honed his culinary skills in NAU catering services before joining the corporate departments of Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel and Ruby Tuesday. “It’s not expensive. You feel like you are getting a good deal.”
What is a “plate lunch”?
It has it roots in the Hawaiian plantations. The workers would get a plate of a meat, rice and a macaroni salad. They could take it with them, back to the fields, and eat it. My best friend’s family lived in Hawaii, and I wanted this type of food all the time.
How did you develop the menu?
These are all of my recipes that I have developed, and we tweak them all the time. The students have told us they want French fries and fresh vegetables, so we have added them. We’ve added dishes like the Coconut Shrimp. The Chicken Katsu on the menu is more of a Korean-style dish. Hawaii is such a melting pot.
Why does this concept work in Arizona?
This is the food of the masses. It’s simple food, it’s fresh food. We are not fancy; we want to be the neighborhood joint.