The Seattle restaurant community was stunned last week when Elizabeth Mar, 72, the well-known owner of popular Hawaiian mainstay, Kona Kitchen, died from COVID-19. In a heartbreaking turn, her husband Robert, 78, died just a day later of the same disease. They would have celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary this coming August.
“For those of you who knew her, Liz was always a great source of Aloha,” read the announcement on the Facebook page for Kona Kitchen, which has locations in Seattle’s Maple Leaf neighborhood and Lynnwood, WA. “She shall be fondly remembered as the best grandma, fun-loving friend, devoted spouse, generous benefactor, first-rate source of amusing gossip and mother extraordinaire. We shall forever miss her cheerfulness, wonderful sense of humor and kind heart.”
In Hawaii, aloha can be used to say hello, but the deeper cultural translation includes love, affection, peace, compassion, and mercy. Ohana means “welcome” in the Hawaiian language, but it’s more expansive than that; it also means “family,” which includes anyone brought into a group, whether or not they’re related.
Mar was the definition of both aloha and ohana — a sweet, welcoming face at the restaurant, who was generous with hugs and always made diners feel special. For the islanders missing Hawaii, she transported them back home through food and friendship, and Mar always made time to exchange gossip, crack jokes, and offer support to friends and customers, old or new.
“I spent many weekend mornings eating breakfast with Liz,” said Angela Petersons, a former Kona Kitchen employee who worked at the Maple Leaf location for nine years. “We would exchange the latest gossip and she would give me life advice that I fondly remember to this day.” She said Mar and her husband hosted anyone who didn’t have family in town for Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Liz would treat us like kids of her own.”
“The restaurant was defined by her smile and warm hugs,” added Petersons. “She was the heart of that place.”
Before opening the original Kona Kitchen in 2002 in Maple Leaf with Angie and Yuji Okumoto, her daughter and son-in-law, Mar was co-owner and manager of the Golden Star Restaurant in Bremerton for ten years. After retiring, her husband took care of the restaurant’s books. Kona eventually expanded to Lynnwood in 2019.
Petersons said Mar always stepped in to help wherever she could at Kona, where diners would find her greeting people, mixing mai tais, serving loco moco, or helping out with catering — all with a big smile.
As a couple, Bob and Liz Mar’s influence on their community in the greater Seattle area went beyond the “onolicious grindz” — Hawaiian slang for really delicious food — and karaoke nights at Kona. “They supported every effort in the Hawaiian community,” said Gregg Porter, a longtime customer and friend of the couple. “We held concerts, parties, and kanikapila jam sessions with Hawaiian musicians after their shows.”
“Liz was there all the time, always asking how we were doing, what was coming together, if there was anything they could do to help,” Porter said. “She was one of the greats.”
Hundreds of people from different parts of the globe have been sharing their condolences and stories of “everybody’s auntie” on social media, and talked about the legacy she leaves behind at the restaurant. “Our support and prayers are with the family of Elizabeth and Robert Mar,” wrote Mayor Jenny Durkan. “Kona Kitchen has long been an anchor of the Maple Leaf community, where all are welcomed as Kama’aina. Remember them with a prayer and support Kona Kitchen during these hard times.”
“Kona Kitchen is such an important place for many of us Hawaiians and Hawaii people in the Seattle area. It was exactly like going to Like Like Drive Inn or Fuji’s with my parents way back when. Liz was a huge part of that,” said longtime customer Celeste Noelani in a tweet.
The Mars leave behind three children, seven grandchildren, and a heartbroken, extended ohana. Plans for their memorial service have been put on hold in light of the coronavirus crisis and Washington’s stay at home order, although Gov. Jay Inslee recently added some additional guidance this weekend for funerals.
Meanwhile, the Seattle community continues to express its condolences for the Mars and Kona Kitchen on social media.
Man... heart ache for one of my favorite spots in Seattle https://t.co/y3Db6yb9Fg— Will Dissly (@Will_Diss) March 28, 2020