New F&B director at Hilton Waikoloa Village looks to innovate

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Hilton Waikoloa Village has hired Wendle Lesher as the property's new food and beverage director, charging the veteran hospitality manager with taking its collection of restaurants forward with new experiences and other initiatives. 

Lesher has been onboard for roughly one month, and has been getting a sense of the staff and various establishments, but says changes and enhancements are on the way. 

Wendle Lesher
Wendle Lesher

"Coming into this job I wanted to get a sense of what's already in place first," Lesher said. "I think where a lot of people fail is in not taking time to understand the existing culture. I've been here a month and I have lots of visions and ideas, but I want to be very careful about forcing those things into this environment."

Lesher boasts a varied background in hospitality and the service industry. During college in Arizona he worked as a dishwasher at an Olive Garden, but the kitchen manager said he talked too much and would be better suited for the front of the house. He moved to Oahu from the mainland and after some time in restaurants, worked as a flight attendant for Aloha Airlines, which taught him a new side of service.

"Working in that environment was a shift from restaurants, and you spend more time with the guest," Lesher said. "You see the anticipation people have when they are coming to Hawaii for the first time, and you learn to manage varying degrees of expectations."

His first stop on Hawaii Island was at Mauna Lani Bay Hotel & Bungalows, where he worked as a bungalow assistant manager. From there he went onto work at Four Seasons Resort Hualalai where he was general manager for Alan Wong's Hualalai Grill.

"That was a great experience of working with a premium brand and premium luxury experience," Lesher said. "I learned so much from Alan Wong, who is great in understanding what makes Hawaii unique and about the fundamentals of Hawaii regional cuisine."

After a stint at the Fairmont Orchid as director of operations, Lesher led food and beverage operations for Mauna Kea Resort, which consists of both the Westin Hapuna Beach Resort and Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. While there he helped oversee the reflagging of Hapuna Beach to a Westin, which involved the rebranding of four establishments, including signature restaurant Meridia.

"With Meridia, we were not so much designing a restaurant as designing an experience," Lesher said. "Everything appeals to the senses, from the smell of fresh bread baking when you come in to the style of music."

Now at Hilton Waikoloa Village, Lesher is applying that same philosophy of creating seamless experiences and innovation to delight guests. At this time, Lesher said his sights are set on enhancing each restaurant rather than wholesale changes.

Nui Italian opened in September at the 62-acre oceanfront property and is the most recent addition to the dining lineup. The family-friendly restaurant features an open-air seating area, a wood-burning pizza oven, an indoor lounge and a garden dining area. Chef Gino Cipriano, a native of Sicily, previously worked at resorts in Venice, Florence and Rome before taking his career to the U.S. Lesher said the team is currently at work preparing a spring refresh for the menu. 

"We have a great Sicilian chef and an engaging general manager who are a real pleasure to work with, and I just want to help bring it all together," Lesher said.

For Kamuela Provision Company, the property's signature fine dining restaurant, he would like to add some "luxury" touches, such as a fresh seafood tower and other seafood-driven items to go along with the sweeping views of the Pacific.

"It doesn't have to be a unique idea in this business, but you can take something that's been done and add innovation to it," Lesher said. "It's good for the guest, but good for the staff too. If we did the same thing the same way year over year the team would be disengaged. I continue to tell the team that innovation creates excitement."

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