Business Monday: Hilo Burger Joint meets change head-on and adapts to continue serving Big Island

Listen to this Article
5 minutes
Loading Audio... Article will play after ad...
Playing in :00

The organism that is the Big Island is fueled by a circulatory system full of businesses bringing food to communities and the people who live, work and play in them.

Hilo Burger Joint is one of those cells at work.

The ability to adapt when change happens is important for living things. It’s crucial for survival and protection, especially in the most extreme environments. It can mean the difference between evolving and dying off, especially in an ever-changing world.

Owner Rhonda Nichols and longtime regular customers Evan LaRochelle and his dad Billy LaRochelle talk with bartender Ryan Jones at the Hilo Burger Joint. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

“The only constant is change,” said Rhonda Nichols, owner and brain behind the Burger Joint. “Everything is always changing.”

Nichols and her restaurant are prime examples of what happens when you meet change head-on and adapt.

Throughout the past nearly 15 years, she and her staff have overcome every challenge they faced — including a global pandemic — to provide a safe, family-friendly and community-driven place that feels more like your own kitchen than a restaurant.


“I love the Burger Joint because everybody here I love,” said longtime customer Billy LaRochelle of Hilo, who’s been a regular at the restaurant since the day it opened Sept. 17, 2009. “Everybody makes me feel like I’m home.”

LaRochelle said the eatery is affordable and “they’ve got absolutely amazing burgers.”

“It’s somewhere that we’ve been coming since I was a kid,” said his son Evan LaRochelle, who also lives in Hilo. “It’s just family-oriented, good live music and good burgers.”

When the restaurant opened, 10 gourmet burgers were on its menu, with a choice of fries or a salad on the side. There now are nearly 30 specialty burgers to choose from, including all 10 of the originals, along with other sandwiches such as a Rueben, BBQ pulled pork sliders, French dip and patty melt burger.

The most popular is the Bleu Cheese Burger, topped with funky bleu cheese, crisp bacon, sauteed mushrooms, grilled onions, lettuce and tomato. The Big Island Burger, which is two 4 oz. patties layered with your choice of two cheeses, bacon, bread and butter pickles, sliced raw onion, tomato and lettuce on a toasted bun with house sauce made with ketchup, Frank’s hot sauce and mayonnaise.


The Mushroom & Swiss, Southern BBQ Burger and simple cheeseburgers round out the top 5.

There’s also a burger made with 8 oz. of grass-fed and hormone-free Wagyu ground beef and served with lettuce and tomato. Wagyu comes from the same cattle breed as Kobe beef.

Burgers work on the flat-top grill in the kitchen at the Hilo Burger Joint. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

Burgers still dominate the menu, what you’d expect from the only place in town dedicated to burgers, but there are non-beef options, including the Garden Burger, Vegan Burger, Market Fish Burger, Turkey Burger, Salmon Burger and a chicken sandwich.

You can also get a hamburger steak platter or fish and chips, which is normally battered Pacific cod, but you can substitute the fresh catch delivered daily from Hilo’s Suisan Fish Market.

Any of the signature burgers can be made into salads or rice bowls, too. And for those looking for something a little lighter, the Burger Joint has four salads from which to choose.


A small charbroiler is the newest addition to the restaurant’s kitchen appliances. It allowed the restaurant to add filet mignon and ribeye steaks, cut in-house from roasts, to the menu. The steaks are the first menu addition in a few years, and Nichols said they have been a success.

They are served with your choice of a baked potato, rice or French fries and a salad or coleslaw.

Even the appetizers on the menu were a change since the restaurant didn’t offer any when it opened. Now, the Burger Joint has several tasty options to soothe your appetite before the main course, from mozzarella sticks and jalapeno poppers to fire and ice fries topped with Frank’s hot sauce and sizzling steak, with the meat still steaming and sizzling when it’s served.

Nichols is inspired by dishes she tries while traveling or visiting other restaurants. That can lead to specials, which are offered from time to time, especially during events such as its annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, or smaller changes such as new dressings.

She recently tried a yuzu balsamic reduction at another restaurant she enjoyed so much that she wondered if something similar could be offered at the Burger Joint or even if she could make a burger out of it.

New toppings, such as the all-meat chili offered by the restaurant, also pop up occasionally because of that inspiration or for logistical reasons. The kitchen started making Texas-style chili as a way to use fresh meat left over from making burgers so it wouldn’t go to waste.

While following trends and adapting to change are important, consistency is also key.

“You have to pay attention,” Nichols said. “You have to look at the numbers. You always have to look at the numbers. If you’re not looking at the numbers, you’re not doing your job if you’re the boss. The numbers tell the story. Then, you have to figure out what that means and then take action.”

Teresa Reavis picks up orders in the kitchen to be delivered to hungry customers at the Hilo Burger Joint. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

She’s learned that people don’t like little changes over time. So if Nichols is going to make one, she does it abruptly after careful analysis and assessment.

“You make one big change and then everybody’s like, ‘Oh,'” she said, adding it’s important to be consistent from that point forward. “People don’t like to feel the change, so you try to make it as non-invasive as possible.”

She has a degree in environmental biology, so when Nichols looks at change and its impact, it’s all about survival. And you have to be prepared.

The Burger Joint was able to weather the COVID-19 pandemic because of changes it made before and after the scourge forced it to shut down and then reopen under strict capacity and social distancing rules for more than a year.

Takeout was already an option for Burger Joint customers before the pandemic struck. Nichols was one of the first to partner with Hilo-based Express Waiters, so that was a relatively easy transition.

She was also able to do work on the restaurant building she hadn’t been able to before because of the shutdown. Nichols said they took the restaurant apart, fixing some infrastructure issues such as a leak in the wall. The dining room was also refurbished and several other details and repairs were made.

“It was nice to be able to do some stuff,” Nichols said, adding it would have required the restaurant to shut down anyway to make those improvements.

She purchased the property adjacent to the restaurant, which used to house the former Big Island Pizza, and now has a new parking area behind the Burger Joint. That has made a big difference since parking used to be limited on Kīlauea Avenue, fronting the restaurant.

  • Customers enjoy their meal as a musician plays in the background at the Hilo Burger Joint. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • Customers dine and socialize in the dining room at the Hilo Burger Joint. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)
  • A family sits at a table on the patio at the Hilo Burger Joint. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

The restaurant also started using a new point-of-sale, or POS, system before the pandemic that not only simplified taking orders for wait staff but also automated and streamlined bookkeeping and data collection so Nichols could access all of the Burger Joint’s economic information at a moment’s notice.

It made taking delivery orders easier as well.

Adapting is also looking at where the holes are in the market and filling them.

While about 85% of the Burger Joint’s business comes from its food, the restaurant also has a full-service bar. Nichols is pretty sure her bar has the largest draft beer selection on the east side of the island with 24 options on tap, the most popular probably being Longboard lager from Kona Brewing.

They bring in several new and different choices regularly, following trends to offer options that are the current buzz and fun.

Nichols boasted about the bar’s scotch and whiskey selection as well, calling it one of the best on the island. The Burger Joint offers 10 single malt scotches.

Cocktails are another drink choice available at the bar. The Burger Joint is keeping up with a recent trend toward craft cocktails and has seen a huge increase in its liquor sales because of its new drink menu.

When it comes to cocktails, it’s not about volume, it’s about quality. So they have a recipe book to make sure the drinks are all crafted correctly. The Old Fashioned, including a root beer version, are common customer choices along with blended margaritas, which you can get with lilikoi. Sometimes the bartenders make seven different kinds of margaritas at once.

Much of the adaptation as of late has been coping with increased prices of food, including having to pay more for items such as French fries. To accommodate, the restaurant is now making its own French fries because potatoes are cheaper than frozen French fries.

The price of the local beef the restaurant uses for its burgers also has doubled.

So, yes, like every other restaurant, the Burger Joint has had to increase its prices somewhat, but Nichols is committed to having an affordable menu so the people and families that frequent the restaurant and bar still have affordable choices.

After all, 65% of the Burger Joint’s business comes from Big Island residents.

Nichols knows how important her community is to her business, so the restaurant also quietly supports community organizations and local athletics every chance she can get.

She also supports other local businesses by trying to buy as much food locally as she can for the restaurant. Not only is its beef purchased locally, the bread, tomatoes and fish are all locally sourced and much of the produce is local, including the lettuce, but that depends on the season and availability.

The Hilo Burger Joint is located at 776 Kīlauea Ave. in Hilo. It has been open since September 2009. (Photo by Nathan Christophel/Big Island Now)

Nichols has even played a crucial part in opening several other local businesses through the years, including the Hilo Town Tavern.

Perhaps the most popular service the Burger Joint has provided for the community since the restaurant opened is offering customers free birthday burgers.

“It’s a lot,” Nichols said. “It’s over six per day average throughout the year. … People are so excited about it.”

There’s no catch either. You can even get your birthday burger to go, but she said many families enjoy coming to the restaurant and bringing friends to celebrate there.

The Burger Joint also offers a breakfast menu from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Sundays that runs concurrent with its full menu. That developed from the restaurant opening early on Sundays during the NFL football season for people to come in and enjoy breakfast and a drink while catching a few gridiron matchups via NFL Sunday Ticket.

The restaurant, which has a total capacity of 99 including the patio space, also frequently brings in local musicians to entertain customers while they eat and have a good time at the bar.

Nichols and the Burger Joint are committed to the Big Island community and plan to continue offering the best burgers and more well into the future.

“I think people like having us here because it is nice to have a consistent business,” she said. “There’s la ot of long-standing businesses, but, you know, some of them have changed hands of ownership. I don’t ever see a point where this isn’t in my hands or my children’s hands. It’s just that kind of place.”

Nichols said taking care of her customers is why the Burger Joint is still here.

“People come here and they like to be remembered. They like to be treated like they’re special,” she said. “Some people like to be extra special, but for the most part, it’s like I take the time to get to know people. … I’m a community member. I give back. You know, Hilo’s been good to me and I’ve been embraced by Hilo.”

A sign above the bar says “Respect this house and everyone in it.” Nichols said that’s the tenet, the rule, that she, her business and all of her employees stand by. They treat each other and their customers with respect and they only ask the same in return.

“We’ve never had a bad experience,” Evan LaRochelle said, adding the ambiance, the burgers themselves and the people who work there are what set the Burger Joint above other restaurants on the island. “So we just, you know, we just keep coming back because it’s the best place to be.”

The Hilo Burger Joint is located at 776 Kīlauea Ave. The restaurant and bar are open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sundays. The kitchen closes at 10 p.m. daily.

For more information or to check out the menu, visit the restaurant’s website or stop in to place an order today. You can also follow the Burger Joint on Facebook, Instagram or X.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at [email protected]
Read Full Bio

Sponsored Content

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Stay in-the-know with daily or weekly
headlines delivered straight to your inbox.


This comments section is a public community forum for the purpose of free expression. Although Big Island Now encourages respectful communication only, some content may be considered offensive. Please view at your own discretion. View Comments