WAIMEA — Peter Merriman’s employees from across the islands, local farmers, ranchers and long-time regulars gathered at his first restaurant, Merriman’s Waimea, Tuesday morning to celebrate its 30 years in business.
“To stop and take a snapshot for a day is really valuable, to appreciate where you’ve come, what got you there and where you hope to go,” Merriman said. “I feel so very fortunate to have shown up at the right place at the right time here in Hawaii.”
In light of the special occasion, he decided to give something back to the community. Merriman selected three local charities — Big Island Giving Tree (BIGT), HOPE Services Hawaii and North Hawaii Community Hospital (NHCH) — and handed each a check for $10,000 during the breakfast celebration.
“They’re all causes that we care deeply about,” he said. “Obviously North Hawaii Community Hospital is such an important part of Waimea and the surrounding areas. They incorporate the different types — Eastern medicine and Western medicine — and embrace it all. Their whole Five Mountains concept is really powerful.
“For the other two, we were thinking about who were the most needy — the people who need houses — so HOPE Services made sense,” he continued. “The Giving Tree helps people living right on the edge; people who are working hard and can’t get out of their jam. My heart goes out to them. A little bit of a boost can go a long way.”
This year was the first time HOPE and BIFT received donations from Merriman.
“We just found out a couple of days ago. I was so shocked,” said Rhonda Bell, BIGT’s co-coordinator. “I’m very honored to be here and for them to know who The Big Island Giving Tree is. A lot of people don’t know who we are or what we do.”
During the presentation, recipients shared their gratitude and explained how their organizations help others.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done for 30 years — bringing ai pono food to this community and to the needy. We’re honored to be beside two organizations that are protecting those most vulnerable in our community,” Sarah Figueroa said, the grant writer and community partnership manager at HOPE Services Hawaii.
Merriman had no stipulations for how the donations could be used.
“It’s up to them how they use the money,” he said. “We give them free rein to do as they wish. It’s unrestricted giving.”
Marking 30 years in business
As one of the original 12 chefs of Hawaii Regional Cuisine and a strong supporter of Big Island farmers, ranchers and fishermen, the event was a momentous occasion for Merriman.
“When we started out, we were looking for really great-tasting food. We understood that it was produced locally,” Merriman said. “It took a little while to understand this, but everything that grows in Hawaii grows better. We were doing this 30 years ago, before they had the term ‘farm to table.’”
Life-sized photos of his farm and ranch partners grace the walls in the restaurant.
“Richard Ha is probably our oldest farmer, and Jesse Ho’opai is here from Kahua Ranch. We’ve been doing business with them since the beginning,” Merriman said. “With Pam Hirabara, Roen McDonald and Ken Hufford it’s been 25 years. For any of these people to be able to sustain themselves for 20 or more years in farming or ranching is a remarkable thing. We’ve wanted to help perpetuate that farming lifestyle, which is so integral to the Big Island.”
Farmers also shared fond memories from the past three decades at Tuesday’s event.
“Peter garnered us more fame than we could ever use,” Hirabara told the crowd. “We’re a small, boutique tomato grower and he launched the whole edible flowers business for us too. I want to thank Merriman’s, and Peter specifically, for really believing in the small farmer, small producer and so many family businesses, and keeping us sustained.”
“I’m very glad that Peter’s been able to help farmers. We were one of his first farmers here in Waimea that do organic produce,” Hufford said. “We’re still farming and want to continue as long as we can.”
Ha remembered his first encounter with Merriman.
“On Christmas Day 30 years ago, I looked up Peter’s number in the phone book and called him,” he said. “He was one of the first chefs to buy more from local farmers than the mainland. I told him, ‘Thanks for what you’re doing.’”
Tane Datta, owner of Adaptations Inc. in Honaunau, recalled the early connection he felt with Merriman.
“When we first met, Peter’s restaurant was on the drawing board and my farm was on the drawing board,” he said. “Neither one of us really had any idea what we were getting ourselves into. It’s all about connecting with each other and taking care of each other.”
Merriman’s longest term chef at the Waimea restaurant was Sandy Barr Rivera.
“I was the chef from 1988 to 2005 — 17 years,” she recalled. “It was a great adventure. We had clear goals and it was very experimental. We got our hands on anything local we could. Our direction was to put a local spin on things, which hadn’t been done. Everything was Continental back then.”
Restaurant staff usually come and go. But at Merriman’s Waimea, Jay Lactaoen has been the longest-standing current employee.
“It’s been the best 28 years of my life,” he said.
In closing, Merriman shared, “It’s the consistency that’s kept us going; the personal drive of all the individuals that work here to always be the best they can, to do the right thing and be professionals. Most importantly, this community is the best on Earth. We’re so lucky to be here.”