Feeding Hawai‘i’s Soul: Michelle Karr-Ueoka ’93

By Mari Taketa

Michelle Karr-Ueoka ’93 is offering locally produced foods at MW Restaurant,
to help local farmers and businesses.

Days before restaurants across Hawai‘i were ordered to close their dining rooms in March, Honolulu’s acclaimed MW Restaurant had already suspended dine-in service. As COVID-19 case counts rose across the Islands, owners Wade Ueoka and Michelle Karr-Ueoka ’93 made the decision out of concern for their customers and employees. They installed air filtration systems, logged employees’ temperatures and converted to a contactless payment system. But to the public, MW’s most visible change has been its overhauled takeout menu, which along with bento and family meals, includes groceries and produce from small, family-owned businesses from Waima¯nalo to Wai‘anae.

Instead of resting on her laurels as a James Beard-nominated pastry chef, Karr-Ueoka gave no regard to her ego and began selling greens from Mari’s Garden in Mililani; local eggs; tofu from Mrs. Cheng’s in Kalihi; and rice from Kaka‘ako’s Rice Factory. “Providing marketplace items helped us to support local businesses and keep the money in Hawai‘i,” Karr-Ueoka says.

“We kept it value-driven. We knew money would be tight for people, so we wanted to provide a menu that fed the soul as well as featured the story of Hawai‘i and its businesses.”

The alumna and her husband have a long history of creatively boosting others. Chefs who are between jobs have been invited to do pop-ups at their restaurant, and the couple frequently participate in community events that support worthy causes. So it wasn’t unexpected that even as they adjusted to a pared-down restaurant reality with people hunkering down at home and cooking their own food, MW donated meals to first responders and at-risk kupuna.

What was unexpected was the dog food. After the restaurant’s switch to a takeout-only format, regulars noticed a new offering called “Echigo’s Four-Legged Menu.” (Echigo is the couple’s Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix.) “It contains Mountain View Farms pork or Ludovico Farm chicken, Twin Bridge Farms sweet potato, OK Farms eggs, MA‘O organic kale, Ho Farms carrots,” Karr-Ueoka explains.

Eventually, the couple hope to reopen their dining room with enhanced safety measures. Thus far, the expansive and rotating takeout menu has sustained the restaurant, kept its employees working and supported other small businesses. But like other restaurants fighting for survival, there have been struggles. In early September, the couple made a tough decision not to renew the lease for its sister restaurant, Artizen by MW, permanently closing the downtown eatery. “These past few months have definitely been challenging,” Michelle and Wade posted on Facebook announcing the closure. “As the restaurant industry continues to be devastated, we hold our hopes high for the future. The survival of restaurants is crucial to the well-being of communities everywhere. We will continue to offer our support to all our colleagues, friends, and industry family, in hopes that we can one day rebuild together.”

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