A plexiglass barrier suspended from hooks in the ceiling sways just a little as Keaka Roberts-Fonoti zips between the register and the kitchen. A large pass-through window frames her and husband Samasoni Fonoti side by side at the flat-top grill as she gets a takeout box of loco moco ready for the pair of sunny-side up eggs he's frying. Over her mask, her eyes dart to the counter where customers wait. Their daughter Puletele is planted in front of the shaved ice machine, collecting the falling flakes and patting them into an enormous mound she'll drench in sweet red syrup.
While the family has sold Hawaiian shaved ice at Fourth of July street fairs for years, Island Delight, on the former site of Amy's Delight on Eureka's West Harris Street, is their first brick and mortar place. As daunting as it is to open a restaurant in the middle of an industry-crushing pandemic, Fonoti and Roberts-Fonoti have known hard times and see the opportunity as "a blessing." That includes meeting Pi Lien "Amy" Sedam and her husband Darrell Siggins, the former owners of Amy's Delight. Sedam, whose life was changed by the help of a stranger, knows the value of a second chance, and she and her husband are paying it forward as they pass the restaurant on to the younger couple.
Wednesday through Saturday, the couple gets to the restaurant as early as 5 a.m., when Fonoti starts prepping vegetables and breading chicken katsu, and Roberts-Fonoti gets the kalua pig going. The traditional Hawaiian low-and-slow barbecue method, which she learned as a kid in Humboldt from her Maui-born grandmother Johanna, takes six hours. "I learned to cook from my grandmother. She was always cooking for all of us kids," along with a bevy of aunties, extended family and friends. "I was always the one in the kitchen with her," she says, adding she'd always wanted to open a restaurant but didn't have any solid plans. But when Sedam and Siggins decided to retire, she and Fonoti began considering it in earnest.
Sedam and Fonoti go way back. "Well, I know Sam for about 25 years before he got in trouble," says Sedam, who used to make the then College of the Redwoods student and Oahu transplant off-menu loco moco and give him odd jobs here and there. "I can see the good in him. We're all human and we all make mistakes in a lifetime."
Fonoti, born and raised in Samoa, says he grew up in "a really good family" but after graduating from high school, started selling hard drugs. "At that time, when I had my first kid, I didn't know how to deal with things like that so in order to provide for my family, that's what I did. And the deeper I got into it, I didn't know how to get out of it. ... I was so stuck in the game," he says, his voice low and steady. Despite making money, he says he was miserable and one night, for the first time, he prayed for help. A few months later, Fonoti was pulled over and arrested for possession of methamphetamines with intent to sell. "I was sitting in that police car and I was happy. I was relieved," he says, huffing out a small laugh, "I thought, 'I was asking God for help but not this kind of help.'"
In 2011, Fonoti was sentenced to five years in the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Oregon. "I was lucky to even go there," he says, "because there was this program, it's called cognitive behavior ... it helped me make better choices, helped me think about them before I make them." Fonoti says the program helped him reflect on the people he'd hurt and set him on the path to start over when he got out. "I was glad that my wife still accepted me. I knew it was tough for me to transition and being gone for five years, and rebuilding my relationships with my kids and my wife." He says he also got back to his family roots and his sense of spirituality. "It's like my guiding light for me to always be thankful for what I have. And meeting Amy and all these people who work so hard. I like to follow that."
Sedam says she can relate to his desire to start over. "When I was in Taiwan, I was a runaway and when I came here, I promised myself when I come here, I'm gonna work and become a citizen." At 19 with no money, she fled her home to escape a marriage arranged by her father. "I want to erase that from my life," she says. After walking for hours to a nearby city, a woman running a market stall asked if she was hungry and fed her. The same woman helped her find work cleaning homes and caring for children, saving her from living on the streets.
Eventually, she immigrated to the U.S. with her first husband and earned an associate's degree at College of the Redwoods. "I just wanna prove that I can do it. That I can be a good American citizen." Twenty-two years ago, after divorcing, she married Siggins. She was running a little burger shop with Chinese food to go. Then Pat Folkin, who owned the building where Island Delights now operates, generously cosigned a $100,000 loan so she could buy it. "I forever appreciate him," she says. Another $80,000 in credit card debt for kitchen equipment and Amy's Delight was in business. "I don't know why I had that kind of guts but I did," she says, still sounding a little baffled.
After buying and selling a few properties and paying off their debts, Sedam and Siggins were ready to retire — well, semi-retire, as they're working mornings at the liquor store they now own beside Island Delight. "We like to work together," Sedam explains. "We see our old friends and we're very happy here." They also found they were in a position to share their good fortune and decided to turn the restaurant, equipment and all, over to Fonoti and Roberts-Fonoti, who pay rent but not the massive down payment buying a restaurant usually requires. Sedam said, "You guys work hard and that's it."
"We've been talking about it with Amy like two years back," says Roberts-Fonoti. "We went in one day and she was like, 'Are you guys ready?'"
Roberts-Fonoti was still working at Humboldt Medical Eye Associates and Fonoti was working 4 a.m. shifts driving a forklift at Costco, but they jumped in, figuring out rotating shifts for the kids to help out after school.
They also needed to figure out a short menu that would work for takeout and fit a family-friendly price range. Unlike his wife, Fonoti didn't learn to cook until he had his five kids, all hungry athletes. "I would call my brother, like, 'How do you do this?' Or call somebody in my family." Then the couple would taste and tinker until it was right. "A lot of the food [in Hawaii], especially from the Asian community, it's a melting pot there," says Fonoti. But his sentimental favorite from the menu is the lau lau, a bundle of steamed, fragrant taro leaves stuffed with pork belly and oily butterfish, all wrapped in tea leaves. "I just love the taste of the leaves," he says, adding that they wanted to offer it to the Pacific Islanders in the community and to introduce it to those who haven't tried it. "To me it's not a Hawaiian place without having the lau lau."
The August opening was delayed a few months by the COVID-19 pandemic and shelter in place but since its debut business has been remarkably steady, fueled solely by word of mouth without a website or social media. Robert-Fotoni says they're getting a feel for the business before adding too much to the menu. Still, she's hoping to add a teryaki burger and shortribs down the road along with some other family favorites.
"As far as our whole path, it's been a long road but we just take it one day at a time. Just be grateful and thankful," Robert-Fonoti says. "It's still like, is this real?"
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the Journal's arts and features editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.