We had the chance to chat with the owner of Shirley’s Coffee Shop, David Lai, about how to eat like a local at Shirley’s, which is one of the most popular restaurants with locals on the island of Guam.
Located in the Pacific, Guam’s population is about half locals and half foreigners from surrounding Asian countries. Such diversification is why Shirley’s serves a combination of American, Continental, and Asian foods. Think of Denny’s or your local mom and pop diner, but better and with fried rice.
As a chemical and nuclear engineer turned restaurant owner, Lai believes that anything is possible when you put your mind to it. And he is doing just that with Shirley’s Coffee Shop. We talked about Shirley’s joint venture with Spam, the story behind how his mother (Shirley) got into the restaurant business, and Spam tacos.
Epoch Taste: What is Shirley’s Coffee Shop known for?
David Lai: The island people, people who live on Guam, would say Shirley’s Coffee Shop is best known for its fried rice.
Epoch Taste: What are some of the most popular fried rice dishes?
David Lai: For some reason, the local people are really into eating meat. The marinated pork chop and short ribs are the most popular. There’s also a Pork Chop Light option, which is eggs, pork chop, and pancakes. When you bring that to the table, the smell really, really brings out your appetite.
Epoch Taste: Pancakes. Could you tell us more about that?
David Lai: People initially come for the fried rice, but when they see the other items on the menu and try our pancakes they say, “Wow! That is the best pancake I’ve ever tried!” When you bite into our pancake, it just melts in your mouth.
Whatever you order from the menu, be it from the beverage or food menu, we offer complimentary fried rice and pancakes. For example, when you come in for bacon and eggs, you can have the choice of hash browns, toast, fried rice, or pancakes for the side. I would say that 70 percent of our customers order either pancakes or fried rice.
Epoch Taste: Oh man, my mouth is watering. What makes these pancakes so good?
David Lai: It’s mainly the ingredients that we put into the batter that makes the pancake really fluffy. Customers always ask me, “How do you make the pancake like this?” And I always say, “The only way I can tell you is if you come work for me in the kitchen.” [laughs]
Epoch Taste: Any other notable dishes?
David Lai: Because Guam locals are into eating pika, or spicy, foods, I’d say the spicy Spam fried rice is popular as well. Also Shirley’s Special Omelet.
Epoch Taste: We found that Shirley’s Coffee Shop is the only restaurant with a recipe on the back of the Hot & Spicy Spam, how did Shirley’s make that happen?
David Lai: A good eight, ten years ago, Hormel [Spam’s producer] found out that, per capita, Guam has the highest consumption of Spam. They came to us and said, “We want to launch a new item, Hot & Spicy Spam. We know you have the best fried rice on the island. We think the spicy Spam would work great with your fried rice.”
We agreed to have a joint venture—a project, we called it.
Hormel then asked if they could put Shirley’s fried rice on the back of the Hot & Spam. Initially we were a little hesitant, but we realized recipes can be found anywhere. The magic touch of how we make the dish at Shirley’s Coffee Shop, and how we put everything together, however, cannot be copied. So we decided to give out Shirley’s 20-something-year-old secret recipe.
Epoch Taste: What was the outcome like?
David Lai: Oh the Hot & Spicy Spam fried rice became a hit on the island. Once our recipe was put on the back of the Hot & Spicy Spam, our visitors and customers doubled. It was a win-win situation. Hormel achieved their marketing objective, reaching their target market, and Shirley’s Coffee Shop got brand exposure and drew in new customers. That’s what business is about. That was a great venture.
Epoch Taste: I would love to try this Hot & Spicy Spam one day. I must admit though, as someone who’s health conscious, I’m kind of turned off by the mystery ingredients.
David Lai: Some people will not eat meat. Some people decided to be vegetarian. It’s all personal choice. Put it this way, is the ingredient in Spam much different than hotdog? How many hot dogs are they selling in the U.S.? You go to the baseball game, and all they sell are hot dogs. If you say that I’m going to eat hot dog and Spam everyday, you may think twice. But if it’s a once in a while thing, it won’t hurt you.
Epoch Taste: Interesting perspective. What’s the craziest use of Spam you’ve ever seen?
David Lai: Spam tacos. They chop-chop-chop-chop-chop and put it in the taco.
Epoch Taste: Is it good?
David Lai: It’s good! I like the texture.
Epoch Taste: Anything else?
David Lai: We have a popular local dish called kelaguen that is traditionally made with beef and chicken, but the spicy Spam variation is gaining popularity. You shred or dice the Spam, add yellow onion, and lime juice. It makes for a great appetizer. People on the island love bringing Spam kelaguen to potlucks. It is always the first to go.
Epoch Taste: Tell us a little bit about the story behind Shirley’s Coffee Shop.
David Lai: My mom first started Shirley’s to busy herself while her five kids left Guam to study in the States. She wanted to do something she was really good at, which happens to be cooking, to kill time so she opened the first Shirley’s.
After my brother and I got invoveld in the Shirley’s Coffee Shop business, we went from 2 employees to about 150 employees over 32 years. The first Shirley’s Coffee Shop was about 800 square feet with a seating capacity of 40. We’ve opened two more Shirley’s that are about 7,000-8,000 square feet and each has a seating capacity of 250. We are very, very fortunate we’re getting local and tourism support.
Epoch Taste: Could you tell us your background?
David Lai: I’m currently operating Shirley’s as a chemical and nuclear engineer. I got my Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineer, and did my post graduate study in nuclear engineering. I worked for the federal government refueling and defueling submarines. After a few years, my mom wanted the family’s younger generation to help operate and take over the business. I was looking for change and always curious about owning my own business so it seemed liked the right opportunity.
Epoch Taste: If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
David Lai: If you really put your energy to anything you truly believe in, anything can be possible. I always joke about how much easier running Shirley’s would be had I gone to school for business. If you look at me, a chemical and nuclear engineer, and my brother Richard, a mechanical engineer, two engineers who gave up our technical backgrounds to run a restaurant. So what does it tell you? If you put your energy into whatever it is that you do, you can achieve anything. If you never try it, the dream would never come true.