“I feel like I’ve grown up here,” said café manager Tracy Gunn last Thursday—her second to last day with the museum. Frequent museum visitors will know her face well—she has been greeting diners at the Honolulu Museum of Art Café for 20 years, the last 15 as manager. With the Luce Pavilion waterfall steadily flowing in the background and her staff darting to and fro preparing the day’s tables, Gunn took a few moments to reflect.
“I met my husband here. We got married here. I’ve worked with my boss [director of food and beverages] Mike Nevin for 19 years. He has been a mentor, a friend and like father figure to me,” Gunn said.
Before Nevin arrived on the scene, Gunn remembers, the staff was mostly comprised of elderly volunteers. “They just wanted to be involved in some way,” Gunn said. “One gentleman would come in and peel vegetables each day for us. Another woman would come and prune herbs all morning. Some would actually wait tables. A lot of people really like to come and tell their stories here in the café. I’ve been privy to seeing those stories unfold, sometimes even within one family.”
Gunn says it’s “just the environment” she will miss the most. When Gunn started here, the Garden Café, as it was called back then, was located where the Museum Shop now sits. Then in 2001 it moved to a temporary tent in Palm Courtyard while the current café was under construction. Gunn recalls serving meals on paper plates that year.
“Now we’re serving 120 to 180 lunches a day, and we’re only open for 120 minutes—that’s more than a lunch a minute…The beautiful, open-air café is definitely a swifter, more happening place than when it used to be a sleepy old café,” Gunn said.
While her efforts as a server and then manager have had a lot to do with the café’s progression, Gunn feels that she has had to evolve along with the space. “I don’t think I would have had the chops if I started in this current café,” Gunn said. Having to multitask constantly to accommodate the growing clientele “takes a toll,” as Gunn puts it.
Besides running a tight restaurant ship, Gunn is also known among staff for her retro style and ability to organize and design a hell of a Christmas party. She’s also a mosaic artist (you can see one of her pieces in the upcoming Contempo #ArtShop) and taiko drummer. Soon she’ll be applying her creative skills to another demanding job—as a visual design merchandiser. While the café provided room for some creativity (like planning January’s all-staff hootenanny—she had everyone square dancing and custom honey jars as party favors), Gunn’s art had taken a backseat to her day job.
“Sometimes when my day off would come around I just wanted to stare at a wall and really decompress from all the interactions I have,” Gunn said. “I’ve been asking the universe for help to find a creative outlet, and now I am kind of checking that box. I’ve done 20 years here, so I thought it was time to spread my wings. “
On May 13, the museum staff held a farewell party. Many brought lei and stories to share—but few can claim as many museum memories as Gunn, and her favorites come from visitors.
“The best exchanges were with people who might have happened upon the museum on vacation, and they stumble over and say ‘Oh look, a café!’ and then we’re able to get them a table,” Gunn said. “It’s that feeling on a vacation where your day is unfolding in an epic way—you had the killer beer somewhere, and then a server told you about an event that night and you went and so on. I love being part of that for visitors. That’s been the most rewarding; and then they return year after year and say ‘I remember you,’ and the time just flies by.”