Honolulu magazine recently called Hide Sakurai the biggest restaurateur Honolulu’s never heard of. With the opening of Shokudo Japanese Restuarant & Bar in 2005, he pioneered a new school of Japanese comfort food in Hawaii. Its success has islanders salivating and investors reaching for their checkbooks. Two other concepts followed, and two more are in the works this year.

Known for creating innovative dishes that draw diners in, Sakurai actually started as a chain guy, moving up the ranks at TGI Fridays in his native Japan, and later overseeing the merger and acquisition of TGI Fridays Guam. It was in his role as Vice President of the Guam division that Sakurai met his future business partners.

Together, they decided to set up shop in Hawaii because of its robust Japanese food culture. One-quarter of the population in Honolulu is of Japanese descent, and Hawaiians consumed the most rice per capita of all Americans at the time, Sakurai says. “However, in 2005, there were only your typical ‘old school’ Japanese restaurants, and most of them were traditional sushi-Izakaya with over $40 per person average check,” he says. “There was no restaurant that offered a nice ambiance and reasonably priced comfort Japanese food with the range of $20–25 per person average.”

But simply filling a void wasn’t a formula for success. While Shokudo now packs in guests, he says it originally was too eccentric for diners. “Fast forward to 2007 when Asian cuisine blew up, and the market really caught on,” he says. Since then, Sakurai has opened a contemporary Mexican spot and a cafe and wine bar, learning from the past. “We only took our food one step ahead of the current market,” he says.

Busting a tired perception of a Hawaiian theme, Sakurai says he’s replaced tiki torches and flowered shirts with trendy architecture and fresh, local food. His goal is to refine five concepts by next year and generate $20 million in annual revenue. Then he'll try a new market or franchise on for size.