Adela’s Country Eatery in Oahu, Hawaii, has grown a name for itself beyond its small takeout counter, winning the #5 spot on Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat. Founded with a mission of sustainability, Adela’s integrates locally grown Hawaiian produce into its colorful noodle dishes. Hear from Co-Owner Millie Chan and Director of Business Development Elizabeth Chan on how they make everyone who visits feel like family.
On the Yelp Blog: For more eco-friendly business tips, read the sustainability roadmap Adela’s used to find success.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. On Behind the Review I pick one review on Yelp and talk to the entrepreneur… and the reviewer… about the story and business lessons behind their interactions.
This week, we are excited to feature Adela’s Country Eatery, which earned the number 5 spot on Yelp’s 2023 Top 100 Places to Eat list. This year was the 10th anniversary of the list, and featured the most popular and highly rated restaurants according to Yelp users. Just making the list at all is a big honor, let alone reaching #5. Let’s see what’s behind this week’s review.
GINA: My sister and I were visiting the island, and we just started making a list of food places near where we stayed or places that we would visit on the island so I guess we wanted to try the best that the island had to offer since this was a vacation. We weren’t gonna probably be there again anytime soon. But, I think we just made a list of lunch areas, dinner places, dessert places. Any snacks, bakeries that we would find along the way.
EMILY: That’s Gina, telling us how she found Adela’s, a small takeout spot in Oahu, Hawaii. Gina discovered the restaurant before it made this year’s top 100 list based on the many positive reviews she had seen on Yelp. Here is Gina’s own review of the restaurant.
GINA: Absolutely amazing. I didn’t know what to expect when coming here and I had doubts about how good pasta could be, but am I glad I was wrong. Upon entering Millie treated us so warmly, answering any questions we had. Order and then they’ll give you a laminated number, call you when their food is ready. I checked in for some haupia pudding, which Millie graciously packed in our to-go bag.
We ended up getting the Combo three, which is an Okinawan sweet potato Ube with Lechon. This was just fantastic. The lechon was so good. The skin was crispy, but not tough, and the fat had essentially melted to moisten the meat and the vinegar dipping sauce helped cut that richness. The textures in the noodles was really fantastic and I just couldn’t stop eating.
We also did a DIY plate, which was the malunggay, which is green noodles and a moringa pasta sauce with braised short rib. This was yet another delicious plate. The sauce was a light garlicky coating with onions and tomatoes spread throughout. Perfectly seasoned. This is the definition of more is less. The short rib was packed separately, but the meat was super fork tender. It was packed with the braising liquid, which we shoveled onto our noodles to complete the noodle marriage.
And then we also finished off with the ube cheesecake. You need to get this. I will dream of this cheesecake. It’s a deeply purple slice of heaven. We ended up nibbling on it while waiting for our food, but accidentally ate it all. The ube flavor is rich with this one sitting deep on the back of your tongue. The cheesecake texture was super smooth and the crust was just perfect, and I realized why they called this the best cheesecake in Hawaii.
I really can’t express how fantastic the food and service are here. The noodles are vibrant and delicious, flavorful, with great protein additions, and the sweet cheesecake really finished it off perfectly. Everything was amazing and we only made a dent in half of our noodles. I highly recommend this place.
EMILY: So much detail in this review! My mouth was practically watering as Gina shared it. Adela’s is known for the vibrant colors of their noodle dishes, as well as their cheesecake, which Gina captured in her review and her accompanying photos. I sat down with Millie and Elizabeth, the mother and daughter behind Adela’s. Let’s hear how the business came to be.
MILLIE: My name is Millie and I run Adela’s Country Eatery. It’s been four years, and this is my daughter Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH: Hi, I’m Elizabeth. I’m the director of Business Development for Adela’s Country Eatery. So we started our business about four years ago, and the reason we started it was because we saw so much local produce that wasn’t being brought to a larger audience. So we were on the big island on a farm and there was this pile of Okinawan sweet potatoes being fed to pigs.
And I don’t know if you’re familiar with Okinawan sweet potatoes. They’re very highly prized as an ingredient on this island. Almost every school kid grows up with steamed Okinawan sweet potatoes tucked into their lunch, it’s like our version of potatoes, right?
So this pile of sweet potatoes on the big island. It’s probably about six cases worth of it. It’s being fed to pigs because the farmer couldn’t get it to the market in Honolulu, so we’re like, wait a second! We could use this for something else like, incorporating it into noodles or pastas or something, and that way we can bring it to a larger audience. It’s a staple that everybody likes and nobody’s doing this yet. So that’s how we opened the business.
EMILY: It is so great to hear from a business putting their values at the forefront. And like many businesses, Adela’s was created after Millie and Elizabeth observed something in the market they thought they could improve upon. In addition to promoting sustainability, Adela’s food is a testament to Hawaiian culture.
ELIZABETH: So what we serve is local cuisine. And you know, in Hawaii we are sort of a hodgepodge of cultures. It’s a little of this, little of that, little of everything. And for us, we mix it with farm produce and our interpretation of sustainability, which as I was saying earlier, is our local produce brought into the food that we make.
EMILY: Adela’s is a self-described hole in the wall. Located in a strip mall, their storefront is only a takeout counter and they don’t have any tables where customers can sit. Rather, Millie and Elizabeth encourage customers to explore the beautiful scenery in Hawaii and eat their food out in the open air. This means their food is made and served to travel, but it doesn’t have to go far.
ELIZABETH: So I will admit that as far as the distance that most of our customers take it, we are very fortunate again with location because the nearest park is about five minutes from the restaurant.
So it’s grab the food and go around the corner. It’s maybe two traffic lights away. Now for some customers, can’t wait to start eating it. So they do bring their chairs to the parking lot so we don’t have to think too far sometimes. As far as transportation and food containers, we have had some initial problems with food containers with shifting things around, and so we try to pack accordingly.
Some of our food containers, we have to vent them so that it keeps the food from getting soggy, but that’s about all we have to worry about for food containers.
EMILY: When she found Adela’s, Gina didn’t expect it to be in a strip mall. And she almost got lost on the way there! Regardless, this didn’t detract from Gina’s dining experience and the food was the most memorable part, along with Millie’s presence.
GINA: We didn’t know where the restaurant was located until we ended up in front of it, and I had to make a couple U-turns before I ended up getting there, since it was on a corner.
Since they’re on Oahu, it’s not their focus to make it like a dining restaurant or anything like that. They just wanted to focus more on the food. And it did give like a more mom and pop shop feel. It seems like they’re always a takeout place, so the focus has always been their food and they didn’t decrease their service by any means. Because you interact with Millie, you can see the kitchen. It’s an open layout, so you can see your food being prepared if you wanna wait inside, or you can take a stroll outside along the strip mall too.
EMILY: To survive the pandemic, Elizabeth and Millie were constantly adjusting Adela’s takeout model. The pandemic solidified the transition to a full time takeout operation, instead of offering indoor dining.
ELIZABETH: So I have to confess that initially we set up with about three tables indoors and the pandemic was actually what inspired us to go to takeout, only because we were able to open throughout the pandemic. We kept it as takeout only, and then our customers started telling us, Hey, you know, we actually enjoy this a lot more.
So we realized that, you know what? You guys are right. We thought, we were originally thinking that some people would dine in, some people would take it out, and the pandemic was what really taught us – we’re in such a beautiful location! We need to maximize this.
EMILY: Although there is no indoor seating, customers are greeted by Millie, who helps guide the ordering process and answers any questions people have. The kitchen is an open concept so diners can watch their noodle dishes be made first hand and see the colorful meals prepared and served up.
MILLIE: Most of the time you walk in and you see our noodle making in process and we have two little, I say little noodle machines, one on the left side, one on the right side, and simultaneously is running side by side.
And then we have a picture of all the different ingredients that we use. We have taro, ulu, ube, moringa, and avocado, and also angel hair. I usually will introduce to our customer what they are and a little brief description of how to order the noodles. Pick a pasta, choose a sauce, add a topping if you like, and then I will show them a few of the most popular combinations, just to give them some inspiration of what they like.
EMILY: This is what makes Adela’s so memorable for so many customers — the personalized customer experience and the behind-the-scenes view into their dishes before they take a bite.
ELIZABETH: So the making of the noodles has always been in the front of the restaurant. This was not deliberate, let’s do a show thing. There’s several reasons for that. Number one, because we had no space. Second, because we thought that for the person making the noodles, it would actually be fun for them to have a chance to actually meet the people they’re making the noodles for and chat with the customers.
And for our customers, we thought we’d bring the experience a little bit closer to them because we do actually find the noodle process to be almost magical when it comes out, especially for me when I’m making noodles. It’s the cutting process. It’s really fun to know that I’ve just dumped 40 pounds of flour into the noodle machine and another 20 pounds of produce or whatever the proportions are, and somehow it’s gone from this powdery mush into something that resembles a giant blanket, and then now it’s coming out as noodles. And then I’m gonna take that into the kitchen so they can cook it for our customers. I find that noodle cutting process just amazing when it starts slicing out. Just to think that it goes from something inanimate and mushy to something that’s almost alive that’s going to be cooked for our customers.
EMILY: In addition to giving customers a look into their noodle making process, Adela’s demonstrates their sustainability mission in the store as well. As a small business, it is important to show customers your values in your branding, whether on social media or as Adela’s does with banners around the restaurant.
GINA: When I was looking at the photos online, it had a photo of the banner that they had inside their restaurant indicating that some of their ingredients are, if at all, like their ingredients are locally sourced. So since it’s on an island too, I feel like that’s really important for the economy within the island versus having them import items that are more costly and that bumps up the price. They’re able to not only support their farmers or just their neighbors, maybe their friends through their products just locally on the island.
EMILY: Looking at the reviews on Adela’s Yelp page, a vast number mention Millie and her sweet personality, including Gina’s review. Millie herself loves connecting with her customers.
MILLIE: I’m just happy to see them walk into our restaurant. It’s like seeing an old pal that you haven’t met for a long time, and it’s just the excitement that inspires me.
ELIZABETH: I know we’re talking about how excited she is to see the customers. No, she really is excited to see the customers! We’re open six days a week and closed on Sunday. And every morning she’s getting out of bed and “I’m excited to go to the restaurant. Wait, is it time to go yet?” She really is. And every night it’s, is it Monday yet? On Sundays, on Sunday nights, It’s is it Monday yet? I can’t wait to go in and see my customers. The customers are friends and family for all of us.
EMILY: To strengthen relationships with new customers and make them feel like family, it helps for Millie to walk them through the ordering process first-hand and get to know them. As a small business, this personalized customer service is a great way to make your business stand out to customers.
GINA: When we walked in, it felt very local. And then I saw Millie behind the counter. She welcomed us in and then my sister and I didn’t know how to order, so she ended up leading us through the process.
Millie showed us there’s a banner on the side of the wall that had all the information about their locally sourced ingredients. So we ended up taking a look at that, and then with some of Millie’s suggestions, we ended up selecting our plates. She was just super nice. She was very patient with us. She had the sweetest voice and she seemed like a very good person overall.
EMILY: With this great customer service, Adela’s has garnered its fair share of regular customers, in addition to frequent new visitors like Gina. Regardless, the experience will be top-tier for anyone who comes in.
ELIZABETH: I would say we try to treat all of our customers like our family more than anything else. So we have our regulars. We have one regular who calls on Saturday around 3:30. He orders the same thing every week, so I know exactly what he’s gonna order based on the caller id. If his name pops up, I will pick up the phone, say hello, and confirm that yes, he does indeed want his regular or he’s not gonna try something new again. We’ve been trying to convince him for a couple years and I’ve just given up. The rest of us have given up too. So if they’re out of town, yes. Or it’s their first time at Adela. They get to listen to Auntie Millie explaining the menu to them, and that is an experience.
EMILY: Adela’s customer service helped them score so many positive reviews, with a 5 star average from over 2000 reviews. Even when reviews are not positive, Millie and Elizabeth take it as a learning experience to improve their business, and even sometimes the cooking, always checking quality along the way.
ELIZABETH: So our team is basically like our family. If you hear any shrieks in the back, it’s because they’re checking the Yelp reviews while cooking with one hand, which has actually happened a few times.
The kitchen team does their best to keep up with reading Yelp reviews at least once a day. If they see anything that needs to be adjusted or corrected, they will actually go there, go to the kitchen, cook line, check on whatever food the customers just commented on, just to make sure and to encourage that family sort of atmosphere.
They’ll cook for themselves using their own pastas. So everybody checks on the pasta quality. They test. Everybody tastes everything. Sometimes they’ll all crowd around a pot to taste what they’ve just made. And if we personally don’t eat what we make, we would not serve it to our customers. And we do eat almost everything we make.
Especially the desserts, right? So if they want a secret, her favorite dessert right now is the jello cheesecake. Before that, it was the brownie bottom cheesecake, and she has been known to eat an entire jello cheesecake on the way back from work, the 25 minute drive.
EMILY: Millie herself loves to check Yelp reviews. As a takeout only restaurant, reviews are especially important to get insight into the customer experience.
ELIZABETH: As a takeout only restaurant, we count on that Yelp page to see what customers are actually thinking. So this is really critical for us. We got on it pretty early because we were small. So with about 75% of our business being take-out to begin with, we had to use Yelp as more customer feedback. So if you have only about three tables in the restaurant, or maybe four, enough of that is going to rely on Yelp for some kind of immediate feedback.
Now, this one checks Yelp every day on the way into the restaurant and on the way back from the restaurant, just in case she missed anything the night before. And then she checks again before going to bed. It’s just because she’s really curious about her Yelp reviewers. She wants to know what our customers think. And we’re really grateful for the customers who have honest, detailed reviews.
EMILY: In addition to regularly reading reviews, it is important to respond often to show your customers you appreciate them taking the time to write a review. For Gina, what stood out to her beyond her experience at the restaurant was that she received a response to her review. She said this made her feel especially recognized by the owners.
GINA: I write more than I like to admit, but I felt seen by the restaurant cuz I did wanna write it for their benefits since it was a great experience that I had at the restaurant.
And then I saw that it was from Adela, which was pretty cool since that is who the restaurant is named after. But it also felt really personable since out of their, however many, I think it’s hundreds – maybe they’re at thousands of reviews now, that they took the time to maybe browse through, look at the photos. And then also if I maybe had some feedback or if they just wanted to say thank you for coming. It felt just more personable that way.
EMILY: In addition to leaving reviews, Gina took advantage of Yelp’s Check-in feature, which is a great — and free — way to engage your customers. You can take a page from Adela’s book and even offer a free item to inspire your customers to check-in on the app.
GINA: I feel like check-in offers on Yelp are kind of a hack. I like to check in anytime I go somewhere just so I can look back and whenever I write my review, I feel like it gives more validity in a way to when I visit. But when there’s an offer, obviouslyI’m gonna check in. But I actually forgot to check in when I first went in since we were so excited to order, and then when I went to get the food, I checked with Millie if I could use that offer. And she said, yeah, of course. And then she ended up giving us an extra jaupia pudding, which was also really tasty.
EMILY: By engaging customers and offering deals like these, Elizabeth and Millie’s have garnered quite the customer base for Adela’s, with lines out the door even before making the Top 100 list. Still, Elizabeth and Millie were shocked when they first heard the news that they made the list.
ELIZABETH: When we found out it was pretty crazy actually. We’re sitting there with the kitchen staff going, you know, so we’re on this list and it doesn’t really matter, right? As long as we’re on the top 100 list, that’s pretty awesome. For a hole in the wall, take out place in the middle of nowhere, out in the Pacific, we did not expect to end up as number five on this list, honestly.
So it’s been very euphoric since then. Everybody’s obviously extremely excited and we’ve been really excited to share that with our customers too, because we know that we owe this to our customers more than anything else.