Family behind ULO’s win reveal recipe for success

They say it takes a family to raise a child, but for one local venture it’s more a case of an extended family to create a winning business.

Downtown eatery ULO’s Kitchen has taken out the people’s choice category of the annual Waikato Hospitality Awards, which acknowledge the region’s most outstanding restaurants and cafes.

And as the photograph of the ULO’s team at the awards ceremony at Wintec shows, it’s a real family affair. 

The eldest daughter in the Shirai family, Kyoko, told the Chronicle they all have different kinds of talent to call on – from artwork to cooking to music – and that they support one another in the running of their popular Wallis St eatery. 

“It’s the perfect combination,” she says.

Sister Eriko is the chef while brother Takahiro is chef-cum-bartender, specialising in cocktails.

Dad Yoshi makes sushi in the kitchen, while Mum Yuko is responsible for the overall management of ULO’s.

Then there’s Yui Tsukahara and Ryu Taysumasa Aiura – both extended family members from Japan – who also work behind the scene as chefs, while Kyoko’s partner Cian O’Donnell is what she describes as “our own DJ”.

Cian and Kyoko also run the ULO shop a stone’s throw away on the corner of Bow and Wi Neera St, where the couple focus on his mix of CDs/records and her artwork.

It was Kyoko who designed the cafe’s logo, having drawn the flower years before, naming it ULO which she mistakenly thought meant ‘shine’ in Maori. She later discovered there was no such word in the Maori language but held onto the name anyway because “I want this place to shine like a star … and we love watching customers shine”.   

About a month ago Cian posted on Raglan Notice Board that ULO’s Kitchen had been nominated for the people’s choice award and that online votes would help family members with their long-term application for permanent residency.

Raglan community responded in big numbers to seal their win.

The enterprising Shirai family found their way to town four years ago through the love of surfing shared by father and son, Yoshi and Takahiro. They’d all fled Japan after the 2011 tsunami in which their livelihoods were lost, and first settled in Auckland.

Although Yoshi was a dentist back in his homeland, the only option open to them to support their visa applications was that of cheffing. 

“So we went to cooking school,” says the matter-of-fact Kyoko. And that, as it has turned out, was their recipe for success.

ULO’s also got a rave review in the latest Air New Zealand inflight magazine, Kia Ora, which featured ‘A weekend in Raglan’.

Another local business – Mushrooms by the Sea – figured twice in the same hospitality awards, which were dished out just before lockdown. The winner of the “outstanding chef” category, Mat McLean of Palate Restaurant, acknowledged his use of  Raglan-grown mushrooms in his seasonally inspired menus, while Gothenburg Restaurant won the Matariki dish challenge people’s choice award with an entry featuring oyster mushrooms from the same Raglan growers.