Alhambra’s 27-year-old Hawaiian restaurant, Aloha Food Factory, may be forced to close when its lease ends at the end of this month. The 18,000-square-foot corner lot that it shares with the fast-food restaurant Ernie’s Burgers will be razed to make room for an automated car wash, according to development plans filed with the city of Alhambra. Aloha Food Factory co-owners Aaron Luong and James Kuang are encouraging customers, through the restaurant’s Instagram account, to attend the public hearing at Alhambra City Hall on June 7 at 7 p.m.; they hope a strong showing will discourage development plans, or at least prolong the project while a new location for the restaurant can be found.
“The one thing I’m hoping is that enough people come [to the hearing] or virtually voice their opinions to just impede the car wash for now,” says Luong. “That way we can maintain the operations at the original location and build enough experience [and] resources to get us looking into more locations that bring this homestyle experience of Hawaiian food to a broader spectrum.”
Betty and Ernest Tom opened the beloved San Gabriel Valley institution at the corner of Valley Boulevard and Cabrillo Avenue in 1994. In addition to serving island fare, including loco moco, Spam musubi, and macadamia nut pancakes, the couple made it a point to provide customers with the Hawaiian spirit of ohana (family). When citywide and statewide stay-at-home mandates forced the restaurant’s dining room to close last March, Luong and Kuang stepped in as official partners to help the founders, who are in their 70s, navigate the pandemic. Luong and Kuang, whose backgrounds span engineering, business, and real estate, had met the Toms years ago while dining at the restaurant. They brought the mostly analog Aloha Food Factory into the digital age when it reopened last August, with a new online ordering system and third-party delivery services.
On May 26, Betty learned that long-rumored plans to open a car wash at the site of Aloha Food Factory was imminent when two signs advertising the public hearing were erected in front of and on the west side of the building. “These two guys came in and said, ‘We need to put up these signs,’ and I go, ‘What?’ So that’s the first time I even heard of it,” she says. “We started 27 years ago from zero to be one of the top Hawaiian restaurants. It’s been my dream to have it go on forever.”
The lot’s owner, Malcolm Arakelian of M.A. Properties, says an automated car wash would be an “ideal” use for the property, but he’s keeping his options open for now. “We’re developing, so we want to improve the land as opposed to having old asphalt and everything,” he says. However, Arakelian is not considering keeping the two existing restaurant tenants on the lot; he’ll either develop the land or sell it.
The restaurant’s pending closure has motivated customers to eat their fill of kalua pork before it’s too late. “This past weekend, it was double the amount of normal traffic on our already regularly busy weekends,” says Leong. Though the outcome of the public hearing is yet to be determined, Leong is scouting vacancies along Valley Boulevard for an additional location just in case. Arakelian will determine the restaurant’s leasing terms beyond the end of the month if the planning commission approves and proceeds with the car wash at the June 7 meeting, Leong says.
“We’ve always been in the black, so we’re very fortunate,” says Betty. “Now our business is booming and now we’re facing this situation and everyone is sad. People are going to be disappointed, but I just feel like we need to go on somehow because everybody loves our food.”