When we were in Chicago for our Asian cultural and cuisine tour earlier this fall (click here to see that entry), we stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn out by O'Hare - my de facto home away from home (when I can get in there) in Chicago. We were in the bar area having a beer or two and my wife was talking to one of the servers in the bar about places around the area. The server said, "Have you guys ever gone to the Hala Kahiki Lounge? It's a tiki bar, just down the road." She told us that it was a Hawaiian bar serving tropical drinks. Our friends, Jay and Pam, have spent considerable time in Hawaii - Jay even lived on a boat in Hawaii for awhile. Before going to dinner that evening, we decided to head to Hala Kahiki to check the place out.
How a tiki bar started in Chicago over 50 years ago and sustained all these years is an interesting back story to the place. Rose and Stanley Sacharski, Jr. were running a funeral home in the Buck Town neighborhood in Chicago. Business wasn't all that great and with a young family the Sacharski's would sometimes have to work second jobs to help pay the bills (Stan drove a cab for a few years). They decided that if they were to have second jobs, they may as well work at some place that they own.
A tavern on W. Fullerton near the Elmwood Park area was for sale and with money saved up from their second jobs, the Sacharski's bought it in 1964. It was just a neighborhood tavern that was pretty nondescript. However, the Sacharski's decided it needed a little livening up. Rose Sacharski had fake ferns and flowers that she used in the place. The floor of their little tavern was painted in a tropical color. Unbeknownst to them, the tavern had - ironically - been a funeral home years before. They named their little bar the Lucky Start, hoping the name would give them good luck.
After World War II, the tiki culture - fueled by U.S. servicemen who came back from the South Pacific - became a phenomenon, albeit one where many Americans were misinformed on the true tiki culture. Many homes built in America in the 50's and early 60's had a family room in the basement that had sort of a south seas look to the rooms. Tiki bars began to pop up around the nation, thanks to the success of West Coast entities like Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic's. People coming in to the Lucky Start would remark that it sort of had a tropical or "tiki" feel to the place. Rose Sacharski saw an opportunity and she had Stan go to Sears to buy palm-matted wallpaper and bamboo poles. In the daytime, Rose would design the decorations and Stan would do the installations. At night, people would come in and be dazzled by the tropical motif. Rose decided that they needed to add tropical drinks to the bar menu. The Lucky Start was a hit with its patrons.
But the area was changing around them. The Ukranian and Polish churches in the area began to close up and many of the ladies who were in the church clubs in the neighborhood that frequented the Lucky Start quit coming in. The Sacharski's decided to sell the bar and look for a new place further west.
They found a "shot-and-a-beer" place on River Road in near west suburban River Grove that was for sale. The building originally was a greenhouse and it still had the pane-glass windows in the front of the place. It later became a general store, then a gas station before it became a neighborhood working class bar frequented by truckers who ran freight to and from nearby O'Hare Airport. In another ironic twist, the bar had kind of a funeral theme to the place. There was a mural of a cemetery on the wall behind the bar and for $10 bucks customers could get their names printed on gravestones on the wall. The Sacharski's bought the bar and went full bore in turning the place into a full fledged tiki bar.
The family - including their kids Rosemarie (a.k.a Dolly), Stanley, III (a.k.a. Sonny), and Stanlene (a.k.a. Cookie), - lived in a small apartment in the back of the bar. Trying to figure out a name for the place, one of the kids was reading a Dennis the Menace comic book where the Mitchell family was in Hawaii. They were visiting a pineapple plantation and the name of the place was called "Hala Kahiki" - roughly "House of Pineapple." Haha Kahiki was born.
The first three years were trying for the Sacharski's - the place was drafty thanks to the glass-pane windows. The regular truckers would laugh at the family for thinking they could turn the little dive bar into a tiki bar. And they served burgers topped with pineapple slices, pork and other island-themed foods. But the bar became so popular that they eventually quit selling food, took out the kitchen and added more seating in its place, expanded the bar and rebuilt the outer wall where the glass-panes from the old greenhouse once were.
The whole family worked in the place - Sonny Sacharski was a bartender along with his father and mother, Cookie and Dolly would mix up the ingredients for the tropical drinks and wait tables. Rose Sacharski started to buy up Witco tiki carvings - a hit with many people decorating their homes in island themes. She bought - and subsequently sold - a number of Witco carvings to patrons that she turned the family's apartment into a gift shop. Hala Kahiki now has one of the largest collections of Witco tiki carvings in existence. An author once called the tiki bar the "King Tut's Tomb of Witco" carvings.
A third generation of the Sacharski family, Cookie's son Jim Oppedisano, started to work in the bar when he was in the second grade helping his grandmother clean and restock product for $2 bucks an hour. He later helped out with payroll, mixing the ingredients for drinks, repairs and other things. But he didn't join the business out of high school like his mom, aunt and uncle. He went to college for a brief spell, then worked at a Sears for awhile. He eventually became a Starbucks manager and met a young lady who he would eventually marry who was also a manager at a Starbucks not far from his store.
The oldest of the Sacharski children, Dolly, died of heart failure in the mid-80's at the age of 40. When Stan Sacharski, Jr. died in 1998, Cookie and Sonny took over ownership of Hala Kahiki while Rose still came in to work at the gift shop or tend bar from time to time. Rose passed away in 2005 while Sonny passed away in his sleep at the age of 57 two years later. His wife, Maggie, took over his part of the bar along with Cookie Oppedisano.
When Cookie died in 2011, Jim Oppedisano was her heir-apparent to take over her part of the business. The younger Oppedisano was in the advertising industry - working at the bar at times when he and his wife would come back to visit. He wasn't certain that he wanted to take over his mom's share. Hala Kahiki was making money, but there was little to no management going on in the place. After Sonny's death, Connie tried to run the place by herself. Work schedules were haphazard and Oppedisano feared that employees were stealing from the company. She had simply become burned out.
Did he want to be a bartender the rest of his life? No, was his answer. But was there a potential to grow the business? Absolutely, was his answer. He took over the business after his mother's death. (Maggie Sacharski passed away in 2014 and her shares of the business have been passed along to her two children.)
Oppedisano saw a place that was pretty tired looking and in need of some invigoration. Knowing that he couldn't completely revamp the decor, he decided to live with it the kitschy look to the place. The patio furniture needed to be replaced, the parking lot was revamped, and he added a juke box to allow patrons to play their own music rather than listening to Hawaiian music all the time. He added beer and wine selections in the bar. One would think that these little changes would upset the regular patrons or tiki purists that visited the bar, but 2014 was their biggest year in business and 2015 promises to be just as good if not better.
Hala Kahiki still does not have meals. They provide free pretzels to patrons and they do have authentic taro chips and sweet potato chips, as well as vegetable chips with mango or pineapple salsa. To this day, people who aren't familiar with Hala Kahiki who come in looking for food, are usually dismayed that it's generally drinks only at the place. They're the ones that will get up and leave five minutes after they've arrived.
Another interesting thing about Hala Kahiki - they also serve fortune cookies after the patrons are finished with their drinks. Now, I'm sure you're wondering why a tiki bar would be giving out fortune cookies. It turns out that Stan Sacharski was stationed in San Francisco while in the Navy and thought the little "fortune tea cakes" that Chinese restaurants would give out were a nice little touch.
Servicemen returning to points all over the United States who had spent time in San Francisco during and after World War II would ask their local Chinese restaurants why they didn't have the little fortune cookies like the ones in the Bay Area. During the war, nearly a dozen Chinese bakeries in the San Francisco area were making these little treats, hand folding the small fortune strips into the dough before baking. They couldn't make enough to keep up with the demand in the Bay Area, let alone try to make enough to send around the U.S.
That is, until Edward Louie - the owner of the now defunct Lotus Cookie Company - came up with an automatic fortune cookie machine. Suddenly, the San Francisco bakeries had the means of making upwards of 250 million fortune cookies annually and by 1960 fortune cookies had become a mainstay of Chinese/American culture. Rose and Stan Sacharski thought giving out fortune cookies would be a nice talking point about Hala Kahiki, especially with the servicemen who served in the Pacific theater during World War II and came into their tiki lounge.
It was an unseasonably warm fall day when we went to Hala Kahiki. (see map) I had driven past the place a few times over the years but never really noticed it - mainly because there's no large sign out front of the place. (Plus, my wife says that I'm just not very observant.) It was just before 7 p.m. when we walked in.
We walked into the bar area of the place and it was like we were transported into a South Seas tiki bar. While it was sort of kitschy, it was done in a very tasteful way. There were no windows in the place and seemingly nearly every bit of the woven palm-matted wallpaper was covered with something. It was cozy, pleasant and curious all at once. Jay - who has studied and practiced Buddism - especially liked the Laughing Buddha statue on the bar.
We were greeted by a young lady who asked if we had reservations. We didn't know we needed them. She said, "On Friday and Saturday nights - especially after 8 p.m. - reservations are generally required. It gets really full in here." But she said she had room for us. We found out that there was an outdoor patio area and Cindy thought it would be nice to go out there and have a drink.
When we got out there, we sat at a table and were given drink menus to look through. The drink menu was, well, almost overwhelming. Nearly every tropical drink with little umbrellas known to man - and then some - were featured on the menu. They also had chocolate drinks, hot coffee drinks, cream drinks, daiquiris, and ice cream drinks on the menu. It was going to take us a long time to check out all the drinks they had.
While we were sorting through the menu, I felt a mosquito bite on my ankle. Then another. I am a mosquito magnet - especially after having a couple of beers. It turns out that Jay is also a mosquito magnet - and he isn't that much of a drinker. He has a bald head and they were buzzing him pretty good. Cindy immediately said, "We can't sit out here and have you guys get bit up." We walked back inside and asked if we could get a seat inside.
She took us back to a room toward the back of the place. It was like going deeper and deeper into a vault filled with Polynesian and Hawaiian artifacts. We took a seat at a table and dove back into the drink menu.
To say Hala Kahiki was unique would be, well, a major understatement. Leopard print lampshades, Polynesian art work, tiki carvings - nothing against our guests, but it was almost more interesting to get up and look around the place than it was to sit at a table and chat.
Cindy and I are big mai tai fans. Jay and Pam, as I said earlier, aren't big drinkers. They're more of an apple cider kind of couple. They didn't really know what to order and Cindy said that she thought they'd like the mai tais. So, we ordered a round of mai tais for the table. They came out adorned with a slice of pineapple, a plastic palm tree swizzle stick and what I believe was a palm leaf. I thought they were pretty good - not as good as I remember having when we were in Hawaii - but good enough for the middle of United States.
It turned out that Pam and Jay didn't care much for their mai tais. They didn't care for the sweet and sour taste of the drink. So, they let Cindy and I have their drinks. Now, one was probably enough, but two was pushing my limit.
Instead of mai tais, Pam got a daiquiri drink while Jay got a drink that was - well, I don't remember what it was. All I know is that it was a color unlike any drink I've ever seen before. It, too, came with a palm leaf, palm tree swizzle stick (of which Cindy kept the ones we had in our mai tais), and a pineapple slice. I think they were more happy with these drinks than with the mai tais. That was fine with us as Cindy and I both enjoyed having more mai tais than we probably should have had.
Our goal was to have one drink and go get some Indian food for the evening. (Well, in my wife's and my case, it was two drinks.) Jay had been noticing people walking past us, past a small hanging bamboo opening and disappearing in the back. I knew the bathrooms were closer to the bar and that's where I headed after I finished my second mai tai before we left. Pam and Cindy sort of wandered around the place looking at the artwork, while Jay said to himself, "I wonder what is back here?" He went through the hanging bamboo opening, around a corner and found himself in the South Seas Gift Shop.
I went out the front door of the lounge and walked around to the side where the outside entrance of the gift shop. Jay was in there talking to a lady who was seated behind the counter. I like a good comfortable Hawaiian shirt and they had one of the largest collections I've ever seen in the Midwest.
This place was beyond trippy. They had clothing for men and women, women's jewelry and accessories, tiki carvings, hula girl lamps, statues, novelty signs, and hundreds of other kitschy items throughout the gift shop. But possibly the most trippy part of the gift shop was the lady behind the counter. She was a SALESWOMAN! She was trying to sell Jay and I everything in the gift shop, pointing out different things, offering deals and discounts on multiple items they had in stock, even letting us know that the shop was closed on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, but if you asked someone at the bar if you could get in to look around they would be able to open it up. Jay and I sort of looked at one another and smiled. She was doing her damnedest to sell us something before we got out of there.
Another couple of people came into the gift shop and she started up with her spiel again. Jay and I kind of glanced at one another very quickly and he burst out laughing. She was definitely putting the hammer down on getting someone to buy something.
By this time, Pam and Cindy had wandered into the gift shop. And the lady started in with her spiel on them. Cindy pointed out the Hawaiian shirts and called me over to look at them. The lady sensed our interest in the shirts and she started to tell us that she'd give special pricing on the shirts if we bought three or more. Now, these were real Hawaiian shirts and I don't know if you have priced good Hawaiian shirts but they usually start on the north side of $60 bucks. They really did have some great shirts, but I wasn't ready to part with any money to buy three or four at a special price.
When we left the gift shop, Cindy and Pam were laughing hysterically at how the lady was really going all out in trying to point out nearly every item in the gift shop. "She wouldn't stop," Pam said laughingly. "I would be looking at something and then she'd try to get my attention to show me something on the other side of the shop." As a longtime salesman, I could tell that she was a good one - probably too good.
So, that was our first experience at the Hala Kahiki Lounge and South Seas Gift Shop. I've never seen a tiki bar in the Midwest that has such an elaborate and extensive collection of South Seas and Hawaiian artifacts on display. The interesting thing about all this is that no one from the Sacharski family tree - from Stan, Jr. and Rose, down to their kids and now their grandkids - have ever been to Hawaii. In fact, no one has been further west than California. But they've certainly done their homework in making Hala Kahiki one of the foremost tiki bars anywhere. They certainly have a great selection of tropical drinks, don't expect to get food as they don't have a kitchen, linger and take a look at the artifacts and artwork throughout the place, and don't forget to go to the gift shop if it's open. Hala Kahiki is fun and peculiar, exotic and unusual, remarkable and bizarre, marvelous and mysterious. It's definitely one of a kind.