All in the ‘Ohana
The secret to Germaine’s Luau’s success? A tight-knit family atmosphere
A group of people ambles its way through a sandy pathway toward what looks like a towering beach house. Each person is greeted with a warm smile and a hug.
This is how guests are received at Germaine’s Luau.
Elsewhere, tour buses are full of visitors, singing and laughing along with their host “Cousin Reno,” as he shares with them stories and details about sights along the drive from Waikiki to Kapolei.
Now, it would be easy to take these scenes cynically, especially during a time where “aloha” is as much a commodity as it is a true word, feeling and spirit. However, the spirit behind the actions here at Germaine’s Luau are very much rooted in the tradition of ho‘okipa from a bygone era, a generous hospitality that was shared many years ago with one Marcia Germaine.
You may have heard that Germaine’s Luau is just like a family lu‘au. There’s a reason for that. In the late 1960s, Marcia Germaine, then living in Chicago, was a frequent Hawai‘i visitor. One year, a hotel employee invited her to a family lu‘au. The food, atmosphere, singing and dancing all made an impression on Germaine. However what touched her the most about the experience was that all-so-endearing intangible found here in the islands—the aloha she felt between the guests, hosts and herself.
Germaine wanted to ensure that all Hawai‘i visitors had the opportunity to experience what she did—a true ‘ohana-style lu‘au. So, she sold her belongings, moved to O‘ahu and did just that.
According to Aulani Pajimola, Executive Assistant to CEO Toby Kusaka, the reason why each guest is treated like a valued family member—just the way Marcia Germaine was all those years ago—is because the people behind the lu‘au are very much a family, similar to those who hosted Germaine during her visit.
“There are families who have generations of people working here,” says Pajimola. She herself has her daughter, Rhianna, son, Travis and son-in-law Andre who work for the lu‘au. “My children grew up at the lu‘au.”
And, so are her grandchildren. Rhianna’s son, Malosi is 8. “He made his debut at 7,” she says. Her other children, son Tama, 12 and daughter Taimane, 6 have also danced for the lu‘au. They all dance Tahitian, and the boys fireknife dance. She has a 6-month-old daughter, Taliilagi, whom one can only expect will also join the ranks, once she’s old enough.
Rhianna Alferos and Reno Kalima-Cuaresma are two examples of Germaine’s Luau employees who perpetuate the family atmosphere at the company.
“It means so much … I grew up there [at the lu‘au] since I was 5 years old,” says Kalima-Cuaresma. “My mom’s been out there for 25 years [as an emcee]. Her being a single mom, I had no choice. I’d been coming to Germaine’s since then, and I’ve loved it. So basically, it’s a second family. I have to say, I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it wasn’t for Germaine’s.”
He’s not kidding, either. The jovial man’s surname sounds like “charisma” which he has in spades. He wears many hats (as many Germaine’s employees do) at the company. He works in sales & marketing, he’s an emcee for the special events division (for which Alferos is a Director), host, tour escort and lu‘au manager. A particularly fun part of the lu‘au show, which is filled with dancing and singing, is when the tour bus hosts come on stage and dance a hula for their guests—just like when your aunties and uncles all get up and dance to a beloved song. Kalima-Cuaresma takes his turn, stealing the show.
“We are always taught by the older generation … to be ‘real,’” says Kalima-Cuaresma. “I think the best part about it is being able to spread our culture, spread the aloha and share what Hawai‘i’s all about.”
“Everyone becomes a family … I inherited big brothers, little brothers, big sisters, because we started off so young, we got brought up with a lot of the [elders]—and because of that, it is who we are today,” adds Alferos. She adds that, because they grew up watching these elders at the lu‘au share the original vision of the lu‘au, she feels an obligation to preserve that same spirit. A lot of that sense of duty is reinforced by the fact that she’s surrounded by Germaine’s ‘ohana members who feel the same way.
That universal vision of togetherness has to come from somewhere, and the leader of it all is CEO Toby Kusaka. If this is a family, Kusaka is its loving and generous patriarch. Enter his office, and it’s lined with photos of all the employees—past and present—their children and grandchildren. There are crayon drawings that kids have done for him over the years. “He always cares for us,” says Pajimola. “What other CEO does that anymore?” Employee aﬅer employee speaks of his generosity, his willingness to find a way to help the employees grow and learn. The end result has only been a boon to the company that got it start in the 1970s at Sea Life Park and has been at its current location in Kapolei since 1976.
Not only are employees cared for, they are also encouraged to try new things and think outside of the box. Pajimola points out that Alferos’ entrance into the company was one such instance. The washing machines at the lu‘au were broken, but the linens needed to be washed. Kusaka gave a young Alferos a bunch of quarters and let her keep whatever change was there after all the laundry was done at the laundry mat.
“He asked me, ‘You want to wash these table cloths for me?’” recalls Alferos. “I would take them down to our laundry mat, wash them all, dry them all, fold them all.” As payment, Kusaka gave Alferos a giﬅ certificate.
Billie Yette, whom everyone knows at “Aunty Billie,” works at the gift shop at the lu‘au has much the same connection to the lu‘au as the others. She is one of the OGs that Alferos refers to: she’s been there since the beginning, starting as a dancer. Like the others, she also wears a few hats. In addition to running the gift shop, she does the buying for the bar and works on the costumes for the show. Her three daughters have all worked at the lu‘au through the years and one still works there, helping her with inventory and the costumes. “This company is wonderful to work for,” she muses.
Pajimola points out that there are several families that have deep ties to the lu‘au. In fact, there’s a competition between two families to see who has the most family members working there.
Cammy Alvarado is a member of one of those families. A dancer in the show, she has also worked as a bartender.
“Growing up, I was part of my church family and this family,” she says. “I was always here. I always knew I was going to work here.” Her parents got married after working together at the lu‘au and she and her five older siblings have all worked or are still working for the lu‘au. She also has uncles and cousins who’ve worked at Germaine’s.
“We were winning [the competition], but as everyone moves away … We lost one of our family members and my other cousin stopped dancing here, so now they’re (the other family) winning,” she says with a laugh.
It’s all in good fun, though. The eagerness to be a part of this family, no matt er the age or background speaks volumes to what Marcia Germaine and now, Toby Kusaka, have built. And what they’ve built is a strong family unit.
“My favorite part is, you’re working with family, doing what you love to do and sharing the culture,” says Kalima-Cuaresma.
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