- On a recent road trip through Atlanta, Georgia, I stopped at Truett’s Luau.
- The themed fast-food location is marketed as a tribute to Hawaii.
- Experts on Hawaiian food confirmed the menu and decor don’t actually reflect the US state at all.
According to Chick-fil-A’s website, company founder S. Truett Cathy wanted to “bring Hawaii to Fayetteville, Georgia” after visiting the islands and opened the location in 2013. It was Cathy’s last concept restaurant before he left his post as CEO.
So on a recent road trip through Atlanta, I decided I’d go see what all the hype was about. But I — a born and raised New Yorker who has never visited Hawaii — knew I couldn’t do it without help from people who know the cuisine best.
The food was tasty, but the experts told me it isn’t Hawaiian
It’s clear that the nationwide chain has created a product that tastes good (in my opinion) and that consumers like. According to a Statista report, Chick-fil-A brought in $12.8 billion from US sales in 2020.
I wasn’t expecting the food to fall short on flavor. My curiosity was rooted more heavily in whether the food was representative of traditional Hawaiian cuisine.
With menu items like the Island Chicken Salad Sandwich (featuring diced pineapples and grapes), Tropical Nuggets (Chick-fil-A classic nuggets tossed in “sweet tropical sauce”), and a Luau Burger (a bacon cheeseburger with a pineapple disk), I asked chefs and cultural consultants whether the ingredients made sense within the context of foods served in Hawaii or at a traditional luau.
“It’s about as Hawaiian as Elvis Presley holding an ukulele singing in ‘Blue Hawaii’,” Chef Sheldon Simeon, owner of Tin Roof in Maui, told me.
None of the experts I spoke with considered pineapple to be a Hawaiian food or ingredient. After visiting Truett’s Luau, I saw that many of the items labeled “island” or “luau” incorporated the tangy fruit.
Chef Kyle Kawakami of the Maui Fresh Streatery food truck said breaking down which foods were native to the land versus the ones brought by different groups of settlers is important to understanding the foods many Hawaiians would and wouldn’t consider part of their culture. But to him, pineapple and teriyaki sauce (also on the menu) are examples of non-Hawaiian foods now associated with the islands.
Kawakami says if he had seen something like a roasted or marinated chicken similar to the Hawaiian Huli-huli chicken dish, it would have been reminiscent of foods he’s more used to at home.
I wondered whether the décor was true to the luau theme — experts said no
The staff were wearing tropical shirts, surf boards were on the walls, fake dried grass hung from faux ceiling roofs, and instruments were on display near the front door.
Chef Noguchi said that the décor was more reminiscent of a tiki bar, which Horcajo said is “completely made up” and “has no basis in Hawaiian culture.”
“There is a ton of cultural appropriation out there, and a younger me would probably be more angry about it,” Horcajo said. But his self today thinks that “it can’t be cultural appropriation because there’s literally nothing Hawaiian about it.”
A luau in it’s most basic form, Kawakami said, is a gathering with music, performances, and almost always food. “If you look at this in the most basic way, I guess you could call it a luau,” he said. “But really, it’s not. There’s nothing traditional about it.”
Ultimately, the idea that a large company chose to try conveying the spirit of Hawaii may be a positive, some said
Chef Kawakami said he commends people around the country who “have honesty behind what they’re trying to do” in opening a Hawaiian-themed restaurant, doing the research to try and get it right. But to him, this Chick-fil-A location didn’t hit that mark.
In the sense of feeling angry about any cultural appropriation, in this case, Horcajo said, “I’d be angry if it wasn’t so laughable.”
He continued to explain how it can be a good thing at the end of the day that Chick-fil-A’s founder chose to end his personal business expansion with a tribute to Hawaii.
“It speaks to the power of Hawaii and Hawaiian culture that got into his heart, into his soul,” he said. “The manifestation of that is something that is not Hawaiian at all. But speaking to the power of what Hawaii is, I think is really cool.”
“Aloha is what the world needs right now,” Horcajo said. “It’s mutual understanding, mutual love, mutual respect.”
“This restaurant isn’t Hawaiian,” he continued, “but if it can plant a seed that makes somebody learn more about Hawaiian culture, then that’s a pretty cool thing.”