Keeping it Retro at Rainbow Drive-In
By Lauren Rolland
There is a vintage feeling that seems unique to Rainbow Drive-In. Business men wearing horn rimmed glasses read the newspaper quietly, enjoying their morning coffee. Surfers cruise up to order loco mocos, longboards hanging off the sides of their mopeds. The sign reading ‘Rainbow Drive-In’ crackles and flickers in neon colors and the glass order-window slides open to reveal a smiling employee. For over 50 years, Rainbow Drive-In has been serving up classic plate lunches on Kapahulu Avenue in Honolulu, and almost nothing has changed about it. Through this consistency, Rainbow Drive-In has been able to bottle up a bygone era, and is known as one of Honolulu’s most classic drive-ins.
Opened in 1961 by Seiju Ifuku and his wife Ayako, the mission behind Rainbow’s was to serve up classic local plate lunches with hearty portions at a reasonable price. Jim Gusukuma, son-in-law of the Ifuku’s, now co owns the Drive-In with other family members, and they’ve worked very hard to preserve this early philosophy. Rainbow’s long-standing employees and loyal customer base are the two things that Jim says really help to perpetuate the Drive-In’s vintage style, menu and ultimate business goals.
Jim, a retired United Airlines customer service manager of 20 years, took on Rainbow Drive-In in 1995. But he didn’t start out at the top. The humble businessman began in the back, cooking on the grill, helping prepare the food and working in the kitchen at the Drive-In. “I went from selling tickets to selling plate lunches,” Jim laughs. In an effort to learn the business from the ground up, Jim now instills this ‘bottom style’ of working into every employee at Rainbow’s.
Born and raised in Kaimuki, Jim started surfing in the early ‘60s as a teenager. “I learned right at Canoes at Waikīkī, and then surfed at Queens until some of the Beach Boys chased us out,” the townie describes. Today, Waikīkī is Jim’s regular surf spot, and he surfs it every single day. “It’s probably not my favorite wave, but it’s the most convenient,” the man admits. “I usually come to Rainbow’s and open up in the morning, make sure all the cooks are in, then head out and dawn patrol it for a couple hours.” After the morning surf session is pau, Jimmy returns to Rainbow’s to enjoy coffee with the gang.
When asked how this lifestyle is reflected at the Drive-In, the surfer responded that one of the great things about Rainbow’s is that people can feel comfortable coming in for food in any way. “You can come barefoot, in a bikini, in your boardshorts, with or without your shirt,” Jim expresses. This casual atmosphere is what draws the beach crowd, businessmen, construction workers, college students, travelers and tourists alike to the outdoor dining space, plus the food is consistently ono.
Driving past Rainbow’s, there almost always seems to be a full parking lot, a ten-person line and people spilling out of the lunch table areas. Jim says that summers are by far the Drive-In’s busiest season, but they can also bank on town swells to bring the crowds too. “Whenever there’s waves on the South Shore, we cook more food,” Jim describes. “It’s a trend that has gone on for a long time and still continues today. The bigger the swell, the busier we are.”
Aside from being the go-to plate lunch spot for locals and surfers in Honolulu, Rainbow Drive-In has also gained notoriety in the media, and has a few claim to fames that make it unique from the rest of Hawai
‘i’s drive-ins. In 2013, the restaurant was featured in Food Networks’ Guy Fieri’s book “Diners, Drive-In and Dives: The Funky Finds in Flavortown”.
Rainbow’s is also featured in various blogs and Hawai‘i travel literature and was even rumored to be one of President Obama’s frequent stops for local food when visiting Oahu. “Not true,” quips Jim. “I think that legend came about because when he was originally campaigning for his first term, he mentioned that he used to surf at Walls and would stop here to eat on his way home. But since he’s been in office, we haven’t seen him here. At least not that we know…”
But Jim’s biggest claim to fame is the amount of years that Rainbow’s has been around, serving up the same plate lunches in the original style. “There’s been a lot of plate lunch places and drive-in’s that have closed, due to the challenges of running a business nowadays,” the owner explains. “The challenges for us is keeping our prices affordable, particularly in today’s environment with food costs rising so rapidly.” Jimmy also mentions that finding the right personnel to carry out Rainbow’s consistently good service has been difficult too. But throughout the past 50+ years, the local spot has remained open and very busy 361 days of the year (they’re closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day).
Because the Drive-In has maintained a family-oriented style of business, many employees have stuck around from the beginning. In fact, the longest standing worker has been with the company for over 30 years. “We have a really good base to work with,” Jim illustrates. “We are a small business in the sense that we still run it as a family. Naturally we try to maintain those values.” Good food, consistent service and affordable prices are the secrets behind Rainbow’s success.
The humble businessman has a great work-life balance. Spending time at the office everyday isn’t so bad when you work with family, friends and have awesome waves to surf down the street. Jim has lived on the three other main Hawaiian Islands, but has really found a wonderful lifestyle on Oahu. With an affinity for Town, the Kaimuki boy resides on Oahu not just because of Rainbow Drive-In. “I enjoy Honolulu. I think it’s the most cosmopolitan city in the state and I think the beaches are the best,” Jimmy explains. “As for the convenience of shopping, restaurants, surf… I think Oahu is the best combination of all those things. Honolulu has it all for me.”
At Rainbow Drive-In, Jimmy says, “you get to rub shoulders with locals and tourists alike. We’re a reflection of Honolulu as it is today.” To Jim, the most fulfilling aspect of owning Rainbow Drive-In is seeing these patrons happy with the service and food that Rainbow’s provides. “To me, that’s the reward.”
In business for: 53 years, since 1961.
Prices in 1961: 50¢ chili with rice plates, $1 barbeque steak plate lunches, 25¢ hamburgers and 14¢ french fries.
Best selling item on the menu: Mixed Plate (BBQ Steak, Mahimahi and Boneless Chicken Cutlet, plus 2 scoops rice, plus 1 scoop macaroni salad or slaw). $7.95
Jim’s favorite menu item: BBQ Pork Plate, $7.50. “I really try to eat around the menu though, to ensure the consistency and quality in all the dishes.”
Newest Rainbow Drive-In project: 80 solar panels installed, which also provides a canopy for additional seating and covered parking.
Additions since 1961: RainbowTiki, the Rainbow Drive-In memorabilia shop, located at the Drive-In. Sells retro, classic and limited addition t-shirts with one-of-a-kind Rainbow Drive-In designs, old-fashioned candies, Rainbow Drive-In chili spice packets, local honey, kids tees, Shaka Neko cat souvenirs (brings good luck and good surf!), 100% Waialua coffee, pancake mix, keychains, stickers and more.
Business hours: Open everyday, 7am – 9pm