Months before the Hollister Independence Rally on the July 4th weekend, Kulia and Lupe Lemus were furniture shopping at Sleep Train when they got into a rather interesting conversation with one of the store’s sales persons. The conversation steered toward the Lemus’ Hawaiian barbecue catering service—it’s called Tutu Pa’s—and how they were going to have a food stand at the Rally.
“He asked us, ‘What is your thing?’” says Kulia, who has been married to Lupe for 11 years. “I’m like, ‘What do you mean? It’s Hawaiian barbecue.’”
The salesman went on to list myriad food items that are sold at county or state fairs, including deep fried Twinkies and Oreos.
“You need something,” the man said.
With that single statement, the Lemus’ started on a brainstorming journey that led them to a rather crisp idea: Spam fries.
Deep-fried Spam? It turned out to be a huge hit at the Rally, and now it’s one of the first questions that people ask whenever they inquire about having the Lemus’ cater their event. Talk about standing out from the rest of the food court.
Spam fries notwithstanding, Tutu Pa’s BBQ had already made a name for themselves as a high-quality catering service. Serving Spam fries gave them an additional boost of publicity. Kulia credited her brother, Kawika Tyler, for the idea after he tagged Kulia on Facebook regarding a link to a video of Spam fries.
Tutu Pa’s BBQ started serving their hearty Hawaiian-style food in October 2016, having inherited recipes from multiple generations. Kulia’s dad, John Tyler, who died three years ago, owned a restaurant in Boise, Idaho, and utilized a pink Traeger smoker. Kulia and Lupe inherited the smoker and the recipes, which originated from Tyler’s grandfather, Samuel Kaanapu Sr.
It was Kaanapu who taught Tyler how to cook and instilled in Tyler a passion for making delicious recipes. Tyler often referred to Kaanapu as Tutu Pa, which is Hawaiian slang for grandparent. Translation: There is a whole lot of family love in Tutu Pa’s BBQ food.
“Our goal is to preserve the generation of recipes we have, and that is why we focused on Hawaiian barbecue,” Kulia says. “Initially when started, we had a thought of barbecuing anything, but as we started doing events, we realized it’s best for us to pull all of our energy into making the perfect Hawaiian barbecue.”
Kulia says it’s been a great adventure in being the latest family member to continue the tradition of making Hawaiian barbecue food. Of course, the Lemus’ have put their own spin or touch or two on the recipes that were passed down to them.
“Even when we got his (Kaanapu) recipes, we had to do several test batches to come up with our version,” Kulia says. “You’re talking about multiple generations of recipes that have molded each time.”
When Kulia’s dad died, the Lemus’ had no intention of opening a catering service. However, after they served homemade food at their daughter’s birthday party a couple years ago, they received comments that turned out to be prescient.
“People came over and joked that we were insane for using the smoker for only family functions,” Kulia says. “They said our food was great and we needed to start doing larger parties. It took us until (last) October to figure out all the fun stuff in doing the catering thing. Ever since then, it’s really just been Facebook and word of mouth (for getting customers).”
Some of the best items off Tutu Pa’s BBQ menu include teriyaki chicken, island mac salad and smoked mac and cheese.
“Everyone goes crazy for the chicken,” Kulia says. “And the smoked mac and cheese is what you would expect—a great comfort food with a nice smoky flavor.”
The Lemus’ basically have it down where they do everything on-site, which helps them immensely from a time-management standpoint since they both have full-time jobs (Kulia is a inside sales manager for Robson Technologies in Morgan Hill and Lupe is a heavy machine operator for Recology South Valley).
Tutu Pa’s BBQ caters to parties of 30 or more. The company’s biggest event came when they catered the San Jose City Parks and Recreation staff’s annual picnic—serving more than 250 guests. When the Lemus’ cater large events, they have Leland Slarrow—Kulia’s best friend’s boyfriend—to help them in the operation.
One of their long-term goals is to get into farmers markets and open up a restaurant. Ideally, it would be in Hollister, but they’re keeping their options open.