As SSA’s Assistant General Manager at the Honolulu Zoo, Alex Ah Tou goes above and beyond what is required. He believes in providing the best customer service possible, and by doing so, represents himself, his team and the Honolulu Zoo brand at the highest levels.
FROM ARMANI TO ANGUS
The Hawaiian native joined SSA in 2008 as a Retail Manager. Even though he had never worked for a cultural attraction, he worked in retail for most of his career. Previously, he sold $5,000 Armani suits – now he’s happy selling hamburgers! Alex added that if he were sequestered in an office and not able to see customers and his team, he would go crazy. “I love it, I wouldn’t trade jobs!” Alex said.
Rus Murakami, the General Manager at Honolulu Zoo, agrees that Alex’s passion for service comes through in his daily work. “His work ethic is second to none! He is always thinking of ways to improve our sales in both culinary and retail and is a mentor to our managers, supervisors and front line staff. His legacy is to pass on his knowledge to others, and because of this, our team continues to improve,” Rus said.
THE SYMBOL OF HOSPITALITY
At the age of 16, Alex started his first job, working at a pineapple plantation. In doing so, Alex followed in the footsteps of his great grandfather who moved from China to Hawaii to do the same – Alex’s family has worked on pineapple plantations for four generations. Alex would use a knife to trim the ends off the sweet-smelling ripe pineapples before the fruit was processed. He shared that he hates pineapple even though growing pineapples is a big part of Hawaiian culture. “I’ve seen the factory from the inside,” he says. One of his favorite childhood memories is staying with his grandparents during the summer in their house on the plantation. Alex shared that he used to raft down the huge half-circle metal cylinders used to transport water to irrigate the pineapple plants, and remembers riding his bike through the rows of flowering plants. Alex enjoyed life on the plantation with his eight brothers and sisters.
Given the pineapple is the international symbol of hospitality, it might explain Alex’s penchant for serving others. But this early exposure to the plant world may also explain his love of gardening. When he’s not working, Alex is usually at home tending his garden with Joey, his partner of 28 years. The front yard is bursting with Hawaiian ornamental shrubs, many of which are endangered. Alex said that growing native Hawaiian plants is important as about 90% of the islands’ native plants are found nowhere else in the world, and these plants foster an understanding, appreciation and respect for Hawaiian history and culture. Alex likes to take cuttings from his plants and propagate them, then share the seedlings with friends.
Alex says that gardening is a great way to decompress because you sit in the sun and relax – I think we would all agree with him. “It gives me time to focus on things. I’m amazed at how much clarity about life I have after pulling weeds and trimming branches all day,” he notes.
When Alex is not gardening, he’s reading – not surprising given he is an English Literature graduate from the University of Hawaii. Unlike many, he does not care for digital readers, instead preferring the feel of a book in his hands and the smell of the paper. Alex laughingly said he doesn’t use his degree, but it’s hanging nicely in his dad’s house.
OPIHI MAN, GRAB YOUR BAG AND RUN!
The mild-mannered Hawaiian occasionally does some crazy things, like plucking Opihi off rock cliffs towering over the sea. Picking this prized Hawaiian delicacy is dangerous, as these mollusks grow in treacherous splash zones (and some people dive for them) where waves crash against razor-sharp lava rocks and it usually requires rappelling down cliffs and avoiding the powerful blasts of water that come regularly from breaking waves. Why do this? Because Opihi is described as “the taste of the ocean” – there’s risk, but delectable reward. So, when another swell is coming his way, Alex knows to grab his bag and run, as the Ka’au Crater Boys sing.
Traveling is another joy for Alex. Las Vegas is an all-to-often stop (so he says), but he also travels internationally, having visited both Australia and New Zealand. Alex shared that he likes the European look of the buildings there, and the people are open, very friendly and welcoming – just like him. He hopes to make the trip to China one day to visit the village where his grandfather grew up.
One of his prized possessions is his coffee cup with the slogan, “Keep Calm and Carry On.” Alex said that he’s really proud of this cup. “I bought it for myself to remind me that not everyone will work at the pace that I work at, and I have to remind myself that’s okay as not everyone is going to finish the race at the same time, but everyone’s going to get there,” he added. It’s not a surprise then that his favorite drink is coffee, given Hawaii’s famous coffee growers. Alex laughingly said that his team knows not to move his coffee cup or to dump out the cold brew!
If Alex wasn’t working for SSA, he said he’d like to own a candy store because everyone who goes to the store is happy, and you can pay yourself in candy! Well, we are certainly grateful that Alex chose to be a brand ambassador at the Honolulu Zoo, and appreciate his aloha spirit when working with his SSA and Client teams, as well as zoo guests. His passion and energy is truly inspirational. Mahalo nui loa, Alex!