ll the years combine, they melt into a dream" are the opening lyrics of the Grateful Dead track, "Stella Blue," a favorite of the late, great businessman and music advocate, Ray Ennis.
After opening Maui Bagel in 1986, where Amigo's is currently located in Kihei, his wife, Janie, and he decided they wanted a restaurant to gratify the gap between modest and fine dining. Few on Maui had caught onto the splendor of bagels, so in 1991, Ray and Janie pursued their dreams and opened the Dead-themed Stella Blues Cafe.
Due to the influx of business, they expanded to the Azeka II unit across the street in 1998. Little did they know that over two decades later, thousands of friends, tourists and patrons would would mourn its closing.
It’s the simple things when you’re dining or reveling, and Stella’s always offered a friendly welcome, a cozy seat, home-style cuisine and a groovy atmosphere. The beautiful bar was a town favorite as well, and the devoted bartenders and regulars will continue to share good stories for many years.
Photo: Erin Tinker
"I'm very saddened to say that after 23 years, Stella Blues Cafe is closing its doors," said a shocking, late-night Facebook post on April 27 from the Ennis' son, Kale Boverman. He took over with his hanai sister, Cindy Anton-Eiting, when Ray passed away a few years ago.
"We have put our landlords in a tough situation, and we can't come to terms on a lease moving forward," posted Boverman.
Stella Blues Cafe is known for consistently offering classic comfort food, quality service and great live entertainment of all genres. But what most folks may remember this popular South Maui establishment for are the fond memories and lasting friendships cultivated there, and the support the Stella's 'ohana showed the community.
"For the record, they [landlords] have been there for us and worked with us numerous times over the years," said Boverman. "I can't thank all of the people that have worked with and for us over the years, and all the customers that have been loyal customers since I was a child."
This rockin' restaurant became a landmark locale with its Grateful Dead memorabilia, rad art and other concert posters gracing the walls, plus the constant flow of fresh flowers and the aloha spirit abounding among the colorful individuals working and playing there.
Hundreds of online comments and reactions followed as the sad news spread, with stories quickly emerging that highlighted memorable nonprofit work Stella's contributed to, to personal moments shared with family and friends--finding love, celebrating big news or goodbyes. This just wasn't any restaurant--this was a home for its guests and staff and the "cool aunt" who had passed away.
Longtime hostess Alison Jackman spent her late teens into her 20s working at Stella's.
"I feel like I grew up there... got married at 20, worked there full-time and through college, and truly loved answering the phone and helping people there," said Jackman.
A server there since 2005, Todd Gizzi was indeed saddened by the news last week.
"It was far and away the best job I ever had," Gizzi said. "I loved going to work and enjoyed being able to make a living on Maui while working with and for such beautiful people."
Gizzi extended his utmost gratitude to Kindra Cunetto, Kale's sister and longtime authority at Stella's, who "took a chance" on him, and to Cindy, William "Billy" Keating and the staff for treating him so wonderfully.
"Stella's was the definition of a 'family restaurant,' and not only were the employees treated like family, but all of the guests and regulars were treated the same," said server Justin Orr.
Friends Gizzi and Orr, both hired near the same time and popular fixtures of the Stella's "breakfast club" crew, reminisced about not only their fond staff relationships, but about the loyal customers and fun characters that frequented Stella's.
From continually giving longtime regular "Cap'n Dan" a complimentary meal per Ray's wishes, to making sure guests had their meals just the way they liked them--even if items were taken off the menu.
"We tried to change the menu more over the years, but the regulars would get so upset," said Orr. "Catering to them was first priority."
Orr also said the charismatic Ray had a way of "making even the craziest of crazy Sundays" seem like there was no such things as "the weeds."
"He was totally zen at times," said Orr, referring to Ray fondly. "He would beg for his special latte, with his long silver hair flowing in his self-created breeze, looking way too cool. I couldn't resist no matter how busy I was."
"I've been heading to Stella's for breakfast since 1993, when I moved to Kihei and worked nearby for years, so it became my go-to for lunch," said friend and longtime patron Alana Rucynski. "Stella's was the first place we took our son for breakfast when he was a baby, and years later, when that 'baby' played with his band, Visibly Shaken, Stella's was there for them. Hearing that Stella closed was like hearing a family member had passed, and this loss is felt by the entire South Maui community."
Sandy Farmer-Wiley and her partner, Jean, enjoyed Sunday brunch there for over 15 years, and said it felt like home.
"We woke Monday morning to the news that that part of our lives would not happen again," Farmer-Wiley said. "I couldn't accept that and so I had to go there, speak to and touch Cindy... And so with no warning, our Maui 'ohana has been pulled apart, but like all healthy families, we will find a way to maintain contact."
"Stella's was the modern-day 'Cheers,' as everybody knew your name, and was family," said Jackman. "I made many lifelong friends, and I absolutely loved all my bosses and co-workers... we loved each other through thick and thin."
Former bartender Erin Tinker extended her love to her Stella's family, and touched on a recent fundraiser they had for employee Johnny Navaro after a bad accident.
"The staff donated all their tips and Stella's a portion of sales," Tinker said. "I think it really speaks to the quality and character of who they are... putting others first, always donating and trying to help, with selfless acts of kindness. It was what Stella's was all about."
In 2009, Stella Blues opened their backroom as a music and events venue, with ambitious plans to feature music and arts from all walks of life while also celebrating the menu and family vibes.
"I'm doing my dream," said Ray in a 2009 article in the Maui Weekly. "The best part is that it feels so natural."
Since then, Boverman and the staff's hard work kept music and live shows flowing nearly every day since the inaugural show with The David Nelson band back in January 2009.
The Stella's became a regular avenue where global, national and local acts showcased their talents. Concertgoers were thrilled to have an intimate, mid-sized venue to attend shows. The Stella's Supper Club dining and live music events became popular, and appealed to visitors and locals alike, inviting such international sensations as Coco Robicheaux, HAPA, Amy Hanaiali'i, John Cruz, Makana, Paula Fuga and Mike Love, to name just a few. And, who can forget Rick Vito shredding on top of the bar during The Mick Fleetwood Blues Band's epic evening?
Happy Hour performers became family, with favorites such as Ahumanu, Ah Tim, Randall Rospond and Tom Conway hustling their weekly gigs with grace and smiles.
The best part for many music fans was that Stella's backroom featured Maui musicians of all realms and incredible visiting acts, such as Brown Chicken Brown Cow String Band, Kings of Spade, Waitiki 7, Black Square and Hell Caminos.
Guitarist Tim Prest agrees with several other musicians and performers that cherished Stella's courage to feature an array of entertainment all under one roof.
"That is something that may go unnoticed to the faint observer but speaks volumes to those like me who grew up here playing music in a very insular climate," said Prest, whose band, Anesthesia, was unknowingly the last band to ignite the backroom during the April 19 hardcore show.
"Stella Blues represented the antithesis of that closed-minded mentality, and for that and so much more, I say thank you," said Prest.
Renowned Maui musician Chad Kaya was upset to hear of the venue closing, and said Stella's holds a very special place in his heart.
"I've performed there numerous times with a handful of different bands, and they've always been very pleasant and accommodating," said Kaya, who had planned to hold his wedding reception there in June. "Thanks for the memories!"
"Stella's has given a huge leg up to Maui's comedy scene by keeping our open mic consistently running for two years," said Chino LaForge of Power Up Comedy. "What makes this is so difficult is that the closing was so sudden... I can only image how hard it is for Kale and 'ohana."
"Kale and Cindy always supported Kihei Fourth Friday, from helping with entertainment, to providing the venue for our volunteer mahalo party," said Debbie Probst and the members of town party committee. "They provided staff to help with setting up and closing down, and their beer, music and food garden added more great features to our event. We will truly miss them."
"I've been so blessed to be a part of the Stella's family for so long," said Bridget O'Neil, a well-respected bartender and employee for nearly a decade. "I'm going to miss all the customers, owners and my 'ohana that I made there... I'll never forget the shows, great food and the family feeling we all shared there."
Although it's the end of an era for Janie, Kale, Kindra, Cindy and 'ohana, they would like to extend their endless love and respect to everyone that supported Stella's all these years.
For a long time, the Dead lyrics, "just keep truckin' on," graced the Stella Blues Website. Those words were more than just a motto for this family--but a way of life. Those lyrics will continue to live on for the 'ohana that built a restaurant out of the love of family, music, good food and community service.
"The doors may have closed, but the memories, relationships and love remain open," said Gizzi.