Updated: September 29, 2022
When Maui native Zach Sato opened his first restaurant, Havens, less than two years ago, he had no idea it would soon popularize smash burgers on the Valley Isle.
The accomplished chef and new owner was just trying to save space in the refrigerator.
“If you pre-form the patties, it takes up a lot of space in the fridge,” he said. “But if you just throw them on the grill to order and smash them . . . it kind of just came from that.”
Now, Sato’s burgers are — literally and figuratively — a smash. So much so that the chef-owner expanded Havens from its North Kīhei flagship restaurant to a food truck in Kahului on Thursday. In the next six months, he expects to open a brick-and-mortar spot in Pukalani, which is already being used for prep work.
Smash burgers, a cooking technique of smashing ground beef on a grill to sear in the juices, create tastier, softer patties that are laced with crisp edges. Eateries dedicated to smash burgers are found in major cities on the Mainland.
Sato launched the Kahului food truck across from Costco gas station with little advertising, but word of mouth spread quickly.
“My coworker has had their burgers in Kīhei,” Kahului resident Tami Duldulao said during lunch Friday. “He was like, ‘You guys gotta try.’”
It’s “awesome” the eatery expanded to town because she works nearby, she added.
Sato’s burger and noodle spots serve up local comfort food. Original recipes coupled with fresh, house-made ingredients set Havens apart from similar eateries. The humble, no-frills restaurant even garnered recognition in Forbes, Esquire’s Best New Restaurants in America and Food & Wine Magazine.
While Havens burgers, such as the “Paniolo,” “Umami” and “Original” are popular, Sato offers other local favorites, including noodles, sushi hand rolls and oysters.
Havens is inspired by Suda Seafood & Deli, an iconic burger and noodle joint that rose during the heydays of local mom-and-pop shops. Suda store remained open more than a half century before closing in 2019.
Sato, who opened Havens in December 2020 at the Suda spot, grew up eating Suda saimin and sometimes a teri burger after surfing.
As a youngster, he quickly rose the restaurant ranks.
Sato was a dishwasher as a freshman, graduated from King Kekaulike High School in 2004 and was promoted to sous chef at age 19. He would move into lead chef positions in higher-end dining, eventually serving as executive chef for years at Merriman’s and then Hotel Wailea.
When the pandemic swept the islands in March 2020, Sato was left without a job.
“I had a 1-year-old kid, a brand new mortgage and no income,” he said.
Sato said it was “survival” that drove him to pivot quickly. By the end of March, he was turning out meal kits from home. A handful a day soon turned into 300 to 400 a day.
He and his life partner, Katie-Belle Ely, decided to open Havens, which is named after their daughter, on Dec. 6. It was a big risk, considering the county was still under COVID-19 restrictions.
“When we did open, we didn’t do any marketing, just kind of world of mouth,” Sato said. “The first day it sold out in like an hour and a half, two hours. And I was like, ‘Holy.’”
“The next day we opened, it was the same. We would sell out like hour and a half.”
After an initial wave of high demand, they refined the new business. Sato and business partners Katie and Davis Mann extended the hours at the Kīhei restaurant. Other locations were considered. Employees went from five people to about 15.
Ely said the success couldn’t have come without local support.
“We just really want to thank the locals, the residents of Maui who have made our business an amazing success,” Ely said. “Without the overwhelming support from the community, a second location would not have been possible.”
Sato credits his team for the accomplishments, saying that good staff are hard to find.
Eventually, he’d like to expand to the Mainland and set up a team so he can step back and spend more time with family, he added.
After all, Haven is already 3 years old.
“She can now recognize her name and her symbol,” Sato said. “She says, ‘Oh, that’s Haven. That’s mine.’”
For more information, visit Havens takeout restaurant at 30 Manao Kala St., Suite 102, Kihei; Havens food truck at Plate Lunch Marketplace, 591 Haleakala Highway, Kahului; or Havens online.