Lanai and Grant Tabura shown at Manele Bay on the island of Lāna‘i, where Adam saved the life of a man who would make a culinary journey around the nation possible.
There’s this movie that you may have seen called Slumdog Millionaire. The protagonist, Jamal Malik, finds himself in the hot seat, just one question away from winning twenty million rupees on India’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. His life experiences have led him to this point, stories from growing up an orphan in the slums of Mumbai giving him the answers he needed right when he need them. Team Aloha Plate’s spectacular win on Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race bears uncanny similarities to this sleeper hit in an almost too unbelievable to be true sort of way, even down to the spontaneous breaking out of singing and (hula) dancing in the streets. Except Aloha Plate’s ascendance wasn’t the work of any kind of script, but because of the astonishing real-life experiences of Adam and Grant “Lanai” Tabura. This is the story of two brothers and how their growing up on the island of Lāna‘i helped them understand the meaning of aloha and enabled them to do the kinds of things you usually only hear about in movies.
Chapter 1: Adam Tabura saves a life
When Adam Tabura was 17, he saved a man’s life. It was four days after graduation, and like any teen wanting to prolong the trepidation that comes from thinking about the future, Adam was hanging out with friends at Manele Bay. Suddenly, he heard a man calling for help. Without hesitating, Adam jumped in and swam out 300 yards to where the man was drowning, pulled him in, and resuscitated him. Growing up on the island of Lāna‘i, Adam was used to visitors getting into trouble in the bay, the calm waters deceptive of the high surf that can hit at any moment. “Then I went back to my corner because it wasn’t a big deal,” says Adam. But to the couple, it was. Two weeks later, Adam came home to find his mom talking on the phone to Dale Proctor, the man whom Adam saved from nearly drowning in the bay. He wanted to repay Adam for saving his life.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but my mom was like, ‘Adam, you gotta take a risk and get off the island.’ We always grew up cooking, because can you imagine growing up on a small island, where you can’t just go to Jack in the Box or Foodland? We literally had to create everything. Cooking always brought us together growing up, and it stills brings us together.” Eventually, Adam decided he wanted to go to culinary school, and Dale, in his gratitude, would help to make that possible, paying half the cost of his tuition. “Jumping in, it was just something I did, kind of like changing a tire,” says Adam. “[Dale] didn’t take it like that. He took it like I was his hero.”
That knee-jerk reaction by Adam and the subsequent gratitude he was shown by Dale would forever intertwine the fates of the two men and send Adam on a culinary journey around the nation.
Chapter 2: Lanai Tabura rounds up a city
In 2011, Lanai Tabura spearheaded the largest disaster relief fundraising campaign Hawai‘i has ever seen. Just two months after the Japan earthquake and tsunami, the Aloha for Japan campaign would raise $6 million for the survivors of the disaster.
The story of this incredible feat, however, begins on the island where Lanai grew up. The son of a single mom and the oldest of four brothers, Lanai learned how to take care of others before learning to take care of himself. “We grew up really poor, on welfare, and since I’m the oldest and my mom had to work, I practically raised my brothers—cooked for them, fed them. If it wasn’t for my grandparents’ half-acre garden in our backyard, I don’t know if I would’ve survived, eating-wise, anyway.”
Despite the comfort of a close-knit family, Lanai’s aspirations proved too great for the small-town confines, and the big city lights of O‘ahu beckoned. He moved to Honolulu to attend Hawaii Pacific University on a volleyball scholarship, which he lost a year later after becoming fascinated with and immersed in the world of radio. By 19, Lanai would become a household name. Locals in their 30s and 40s may remember the smash hits “Rice Rice Baybee,” “Me So Hungry,” and “I’m a Filipino,” parodies of popular tunes sung by the 3 Local Boys (made up of Lanai and fellow radio personalities Jimmy “Da Geek” Bender and “da Kruzah” Alan Oda). The album was played across the state and the mainland, eventually selling more than 100,000 units. “We were the social media back then,” says Lanai. “We had two out of every three teens listening to us at one point in Hawai‘i.” Lanai would go on to found the Hawaiian and reggae radio station 98.5, which would become an overnight success. By the time he was 30, Lanai owned three homes, drove a Mercedes, and was living the dream. Then “I lost it all,” he says. “Lost all my homes, lost the station, lost all my money, lost my fiancée of seven years, as a result of being stupid, partying too much—you name it, I did it.”
Broke, filing for bankruptcy, Lanai began seeking out what to do next with his life. He began meeting with people he’d built relationships over the years, mentors like Mike McCartney, currently the president of the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority; Pono Shim, a kahu known for his ideals of pono and aloha and president of Enterprise Honolulu; Raymond Noh of Noh Foods.
“I’m out to dinner with Raymond,” recalls Lanai, “and he tells the people we’re with, ‘You know this guy, he can bring people together that don’t know each other, that don’t like each other, don’t speak English—it’s amazing.’” A few weeks later, he finds himself sitting in Shim’s office, the kahu telling him, “‘Lanai, I bet you help everybody.’ And I go, ‘Yes, that’s probably my biggest downfall. Everybody always wants something from me.’ And he goes, ‘That’s a gift, you know, helping people.’”
A month later, Lanai found himself in a room with the owners of local clothing companies Barefoot League, Fitted, In4mation, Buti Groove and HiLife, posing the question of how these local brands can figure out a way to work together instead of against each other and in a way that’s mindful of the culture of Hawai‘i. Over the course of six months, Lanai and the ten owners met monthly, taking field trips to places like Bishop Museum to learn about traditional Hawaiian clothes making or to visit Daniel Anthony to learn how to pound pa‘i‘ai. The day before they were to meet Anthony, the tsunami hit Japan. “Everyone wants to cancel the meeting,” Lanai recalls. But he convinced the owners to show up to the Sand Island spot where they were to receive the lesson from Anthony. As soon as they all arrived, with tensions high over the effects of the tsunami, the ten owners start arguing immediately. Over the past six months, they had been talking about creating one brand as a collaboration project between all the brands. “I tell everybody, ‘You know what, you guys have been arguing for an hour already, let’s just stop, continue this later, everybody hug each other.’ So they stop, sit down, Daniel gives a great message about working together—eh, they had such a good time pounding. … Then we look up, and every boat in Honolulu is on the horizon. Because of the tsunami, they had to move all the boats out.” Lanai doesn’t recall exactly who said it, but someone suggested doing something for Japan. “So I said, ‘Brah, lets share some aloha for Japan.’”
That day, they collectively come up with the Aloha for Japan logo, and by week’s end, 10,000 shirts had sold. To date, with the help of Pono Shim, Mike McCartney, and 160 local organizations including banks, schools, media outlets, and restaurants, the campaign has raised just under $10 million for Japan relief and sold upwards of 50,000 shirts.
“Growing up on Lāna‘i was really the backbone of who we are,” says Lanai. “We grew up in a tight family, and everything that we’ve done in our lives has been based around aloha. My mom, as a single parent, showed us what aloha was; our grandparents showed us what aloha was. We didn’t realize what it was when we were younger, but as we got older we realized it was aloha.”
Chapter 3: Adam and Lanai share aloha across the nation
After zigzagging across the nation, covering more than 5,000 miles in two months, Grant Lanai Tabura, Adam Tabura, and Shawn Felipe found themselves in a moment purely bittersweet. A crowd of Hawai‘i-ans nearly 200 deep managed to track the trio down to the nation’s capital, when someone decided that the singing of Hawai‘i Aloha would be appropriate for the moment. The flurry of activity ceased, Adam put down his knife, Lanai lowered his megaphone, and all three emerged from the sunshine-yellow truck that had carried them across the nation. Impromptu, in unison, voices rung out:
E Hawai‘i e ku‘u one hānau e
Ku‘u home kulaīwi nei
‘Oli nō au i na pono lani ou
E Hawai‘i, aloha ē
E hau‘oli na ‘opio o Hawai‘i nei
‘Oli ē! ‘Oli ē!
Mai nā aheahe makani e pā mai nei
Mau ke aloha, no Hawai’i
O Hawai‘i, O sands of my birth
My native home
I rejoice in the blessings of heaven
O Hawai‘i, aloha.
Happy youth of Hawai‘i
Gentle breezes blow
Love always for Hawai‘i.
It was a risky move for team Aloha Plate, stopping in the midst of competing on Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, considering even a few idle minutes could mean the difference between going home with $50,000 and going home empty handed. The pause, however, made no difference; it merely provided a moment to relish in what was already certain victory for team Aloha Plate.
That “chicken skin moment,” as Lanai calls it, tells the story of why Aloha Plate emerged as victors of The Great Food Truck Race. It’s a spectacular culmination of what they experienced time and time again over the course of the show. “O Hawai‘i, O sands of my birth / My native home / Love always for Hawai‘i.”
“There’s a huge community of Hawaiians on the mainland called ‘Frozen Ohana,’” says Adam. “Think about it, if you’re living on the mainland for ten years, haven’t seen nobody, and someone says, ‘Eh, some Hawai‘i boys going show up down the road with food,’ trust me, you’ll go. That’s what’s crazy about the mainland—the aloha up there is way more tight. Because there’s less of them, they stand together stronger.”
In its fourth season and continuing to capitalize on the food truck craze, The Great Food Truck Race sent eight teams scrambling across the country, challenging competitors along the way to see who could cook and sell their way to the top. The race passed through eight states, starting in California, then Oregon, Idaho, South Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois, Maryland, and Virginia before ending in Washington D.C. In each state, teams navigated through the unfamiliar cities, attempting to find high-trafficked areas and good places to park (the key to any food truck’s success); drum up a crowd; and maneuver through “truck stops” and “speed bumps,” abrupt challenges given to the teams by host Tyler Florence. Some of these challenges included having to stop selling and move locations despite long lines of waiting customers or losing access to their car (which forced Lanai to run five blocks to the grocery store in order to restock on supplies).
Though all the teams struggled to deal with these physical challenges, the cooking challenges thrown at Adam were handled with ease. When teams had to harvest their own potatoes in Idaho, Adam and Lanai harkened back to their childhoods in the garden on Lāna‘i, growing sweet potatoes and cabbage on their grandparent’s farm. When teams were faced with butchering an entire buffalo carcass, Adam was able to swiftly slice through the carcass in just minutes because he grew up hunting deer, butchering them daily in the restaurants he worked at on Maui and Lāna‘i. When teams were given “unusual” ingredients like geoduck (known in Hawai‘i at sushi bars as mirugai, or giant clam) or Spam—well, that one’s obvious. And no matter where team Aloha Truck pulled up to, there were always people waiting. “We’d call one person to tell them where we were going, then when we show up to the site, 200 people would be waiting, playing ‘ukulele, waving Hawaiian flag,” says Adam. “You see that, and you want to cry.” In many of the states Aloha Plate traversed to, entire hula halau would show up; musicians would jam; people would set up pop-up tents and talk story for hours. In Minnesota, Matt Camera, a Hawai‘i transplant who formed a Facebook support page for homesick locals called “Frozen Ohana,” organized a block party that continued on until midnight even after the day’s competition was over at 7 p.m.
Team Aloha Plate did so well that producers couldn’t help but think negatively. “Someone in line came up to me and said, ‘Eh, the producers think you’re cheating!’” says Lanai. “They were wondering how we get all these people here.” The dumbfounded producer even asked if they were flying the crowds in.
The show is also where the fates of Adam and Dale Proctor would once again intertwine. Shawn Felipe, the third member of team Aloha Plate who was responsible for driving the food truck across the country, shared Adam’s story during casting at the beginning of the show, which ended up being one of the major reasons they were chosen. Though Adam stayed in touch with the man whose life he saved, the communication between the two had dwindled over the years. But after Aloha Plate’s arrival in San Francisco, where Dale had first brought Adam to be a special guest at a banquet he was being honored at, Adam gave Dale a call. At many of the stops during the competition, Adam had a personal connection with that locale. Portland was where he went to culinary school (made possible by Dale), Minnesota is where Dale’s daughter lived (though they missed each other due to conflicting traveling schedules), and their final stop in Maryland brought Adam face to face with Dale’s two sons and grandchildren. “I got to meet all the grandchildren, and shake the hand of his oldest son who I had never met. His son was just in shock, like, ‘You saved my dad?’
“I never asked [Dale and his family] for anything, and they always wanted to be a part of my life, but I kept them out of it because it was just a good deed,” Adam continues. “And now I realized that this was such a good opportunity to connect with these people, that the good God is making this circle based off of me saving him.”
Currently the Tabura brothers are working to franchise the Aloha Plate concept across the nation with a slew of trucks and brick-and-mortar restaurants. They are also working with 7-Eleven in Hawai‘i and Japan to create a line of Aloha Plate foods, including a bento and musubi, in which a portion of the proceeds from sales will go to SupportMyClass.org, a program that helps fund out-of-pocket expenses teachers incur in public schools. (A teacher in Nānākuli, for example, buys slippers for the kids to use because if they arrive to school shoeless, they get sent home.)
“Ultimately, we want to just keep producing Hawai‘i and letting the world know there’s a lot of aloha to share,” says Adam. “After going inland, I really felt some of these places are so messed up, so they appreciated where we were from. My biggest thing after traveling: I think people here in Hawai‘i need to be more aloha themselves. I hate when I hear people say they’re Hawai‘i this or that, but they don’t put off a good spirit.”
Lanai continues: “Everyone puts themselves into categories and talks about how their culture is ‘Hawaiian’ or ‘Japanese’ or ‘Filipino,’ but if you really think about it, we’re all the same. We all ran with our slippers on our hands to go faster, we all ate li hing mui or shave ice. That wasn’t Hawaiian, Japanese, or Filipino—that was Hawai‘i. … Yes, aloha is the Hawaiian way, but aloha is the responsibility of all of us.”