“O ke kahua ma mua, ma hope ke kūkulu” (Puku’i #2459)
is an ‘Ōlelo Noʻeau that resonates throughout the local community of Hawaiʻi. “First the foundation, then the building” pertains to the incredible journey of Big Island Top Dogs as they grew from a small New York style hot dog cart to a booming store front in Hilo town. Just one of many local businesses that started their journey at Makuʻu Farmers Market and are now thriving today!
WHAT IS BIG ISLAND TOPDOGS?
Big Island Top Dogs is a locally owned store front restaurant located in Hilo, Hawai’i with a vast variety of your favorite local and Hawaiian foods. The local owners Mike and Robin Mattos started their Big Island Top Dog business in 2013 when Uncle Mike purchased a little hot dog cart from Maui, and have been flourishing ever since as Big Island Top Dogs. According to Aunty Robin, the whole idea of Top Dogs is to have the freedom to choose the toppings for your “dog”; it’s a clever play on words. Top Dogs became extremely popular among the local community as this family-run business made it a fun game among themselves as to who can create the most addicting dishes and sauces varying from their favored lilikoi mustard sauce, garlic aioli, and much more. Big Island Top Dogs continue to bring more delicious foods to the table but the question is, how did this little hot dog cart business get to where they are now?
HOW THEY STARTED
In 2013, having a food truck business was a rare occurrence on the Big Island, as there were little to no food trucks. Uncle Mike and Aunty Robin were both working full time jobs during this time and through the midst of their busy schedules, Uncle Mike had the bright idea of starting a food truck as a side job. However, this idea was not so bright to Aunty Robin but rather “absurd”. There’s a great deal of requirements that come into play when starting a food business. Would this idea be possible without prior experience or knowledge?
The vision was brought to life as Uncle Mike purchased a hot dog cart from Maui in 2012. There was still much to do before his vision could be fully carried out. A foundation needed to be built; that foundation being research. According to Aunty Robin, Uncle Mike needed to do his “homework” and settle agreements with the Department of Health before anything could truly happen. The Department of Health had no idea how to certify Uncle Mike as they never worked with a hot dog cart before. However by 2013, all requirements for the hot dog cart were resolved and the Big Island Top Dogs business was set into motion.
Uncle started his Top Dogs cart at Hilo market and other public events prior to selling at Maku’u Farmers Market and it was by connections with old friends that Big Island Top Dogs took action at Maku’u Farmers Market.
Aunty Robin mentioned in the interview how fun and welcoming the atmosphere is at Maku’u Farmers Market. It’s a place to build connections with those around you and to rekindle old ones. Everyone becomes one big ‘ohana and if you were in need of kōkua, then kōkua you would get. Top Dogʻs business continued to thrive in the family-friendly environment of Makuʻu with an abundance of social time and great musical entertainment until Uncle Mike decided to go bigger with their booming business.
In 2016, Uncle Mike quit his job at construction in order to devote his time to Top Dogs. Uncle Mike was offered a place by an old family friend of his father, Mr. Tanouye, to get his business officially set up as a store front. However, things are different with opening a store front compared to selling at the market. There are even more details that take effect like deeper research, time, and energy, but Uncle continued to strive for his vision with the support of Aunty Robin.
As the official opening date of Top Dogs neared in May of 2016, Uncle Mike and Aunty Robin were experiencing some doubts about it as they were told “Don’t feel bad if nobody shows up or you don’t get any business.” The last thing any new store owner wants to hear as their shop is about to open. Despite doubts Aunty Robin stated,
“If you have a passion, go for it. Be brave about it and don’t listen to what other people have to say.”
Her great words of wisdom paid off because on Big Island Top Dog’s first official opening “da place was packed!,” as locals would say. So many of their loyal customers from Maku’u, that they’ve built profound connections with, came to show their love and support. And as Top Dogs got more busy, Aunty Robin left her job to put all her devoted time into their family-owned business.
Aunty and Uncle had other visions they wanted to build upon such as expanding the restaurant and making a hangout spot for the younger generation with karaoke rooms and pool tables. Unfortunately, COVID halted those great plans, and additional issues began to arise. Aunty shared how it got harder to find workers that were committed and motivated during the pandemic. They never dealt with employees before and they weren’t sure how to manage everything because it was a new experience for Uncle Mike and herself. Despite the struggles they faced, they continued their business in a family manner, with discipline and respect for one another. As Uncle and her like to say, “We slow learners, but we learn.” Their resilience in such rocky situations stresses the importance of continuing to imua, especially when things get harder.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW
Presently, how are things going with the famous Big Island Top Dogs? Things are still up and running as Top Dogs continue to serve their “‘ono grinds that leave da mouth broke.” Their plan now is to downsize the store and continue doing take-out because it is the most convenient for local restaurants like Top Dogs, especially because of COVID. But who knows, maybe their karaoke pool table hangout vision will come to aspire in the future.
Aunty Robin didn’t fail to mention the endless gratitude Uncle and herself have for Maku’u Farmers Market.
“It’s because of Maku’u market that we were able to build a fan base and have the opportunity to really try our skills and learn about business and have that support and move on.”
This is all that Maku’u strives and hopes for with the local business owners within our community. It is Maku’u Market’s kuleana to provide that strong, supportive foundation needed for our local business owners to grow and do bigger things, no matter the difficulties or competition. As Aunty Robin ended with, “Don’t be afraid of the competition. Friendly competition is healthy. It keeps you on your game…you might learn a thing or two from your competitors, so always be gracious and kind…support one another.”