Hula’s owner goes from touring to tikis

By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski

Dana Mule traveled the world with New Kids on the Block providing security for singer Jonathan Knight. Screaming girls, autograph hounds and concerts filled his days. When he met his wife, he quit traveling.

So, he, in time, opened a restaurant — Hula’s Modern Tiki.

“The only thing more insane with more hours than the restaurant business is the event business,” Mule says with a laugh. “The entertainment business has no hours. There’s no 9 to 5. It’s every holiday, every weekend, every night. Going from working 90 hours a week to 75 is a reprieve.”

The first Hula’s opened on Central Avenue in September 2009 — right when the economy collapsed and fell apart.

“We thought, ‘Alright. We can stop or we can just roll the dice and see what happens,’” he says.

It worked out well for him. He’s opened three restaurants, including the location on High Street — his favorite.

“I really like the way this one turned out,” he says.

Hula’s Modern Tiki explores Polynesia with dishes like bali hai barbecue ribs, served with mango barbecue sauce, sweet potato fries and slaw ($13/$20); island-style poke with raw ahi, soy sauce, sesame oil, avocado, onions, macadamia nuts and wonton chips ($13); and the Loco Moco, a burger patty and rice, covered in brown mushroom gravy and sunny side up eggs ($12).

“Then we have other fusion dishes that my business partner, Craig (Delaney), picked up from his years of living in Hawaii,” he says. “I like the spicy Thai chicken bowl. It’s probably my favorite dish and one of our best-selling dishes, for that matter.”

Mule doesn’t take credit for the concept. Instead, it came from Hula Island Grill in Monterrey, California. One day, on a whim, he approached the owners, Chris and Craig Delaney.

“I was in there one night,” he recalls. “I had met my wife, and I knew that I couldn’t be on the road 310 days a year anymore. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I thought, ‘I should ask these guys — whom I’ve never met — to come to Phoenix and open a restaurant with me.’ I didn’t have any restaurant experience. It seemed like a great idea, though.”

Mule eventually became friends with the owners. Three years and seven months after he met them, he opened the doors to Hula’s Modern Tiki.

“I am a firm believer that if you want to do something in this country, you can do it,” he says. “I’m a living example of that. They shouldn’t have even given me the time of day.

“This concept is slightly different than the one in Monterrey,” he says. “This is a locally owned business, and this is more urban and slick.”

A McCormick Ranch resident, Mule keeps the menu at Hula’s consistent.

“I go to specific restaurants because there are things there that I like,” he says. “Not that I won’t try other things, but I want what I crave. I don’t want to go in a restaurant and discover the thing I love the most is gone. So, we tend to leave it relatively consistent. It’s a big menu.

“I think when you have that one-page menu — which has become kind of hip lately — the purpose of that is to rotate it and make it different all the time.

Protecting stars

Mule toured with New Kids on the Block from 1990 to 1993, during the peak of the group’s career. His resume also included a stint protecting Duff McKagan of Guns ’N Roses during the recording of “Use Your Illusion.”

“I did a lot locally, too,” he says. “If anyone threw you out of a concert, the event staff guys took care of it. Those guys worked for me.

“I still miss certain aspects of that.”

He’s remained friends with Knight, with whom he has a lot in common.

“Even though I was the bodyguard and he was the performer, we went through the same things together,” he says.

“It’s nice to be able to talk to someone about something we shared 30 years ago — particularly if you’re in a group of other people. We can tell them what it was like. He and I both know what it was like.”

Mule says it wasn’t nerve-wracking to enter a new field. After all, he’s witnessed the worst in people through his previous career.

“There’s nothing scarier than having Deftones call the crowd out,” he says.

“It became a thing where (fans) would take over the concession stands and pull anything burnable out of the concession stands and build bonfires on the lawn and GA section. Once you’ve been through that, this business seems relatively sedate.”

Hula’s is like traveling out of the country, without doing so, Mule says. Chris Delaney is the “design mind” behind Hula’s, Mule says.

“It’s like getting away somewhere without going anywhere, which is what I think has been part of the appeal for us over the last eight or nine months,” Mule says. “A lot of people aren’t flying. You can’t go to Hawaii. You can’t go anywhere. You can come to Hula’s for a couple hours. If you close your eyes and you have enough drinks, it’s like you’re somewhere else, but you really didn’t have to leave town to do it.”

Besides food, Hula’s is heavy on cocktails like Hula’s Painkiller (Appleton’s gold rum, coconut, pineapple and orange juice, $9); Dr. Funk (coconut rum, vodka, crème de banana, pineapple and orange juice, $9); and Tiki Bastard (gin, bourbon, pomegranate syrup, lime juice, cock ’n’ bull ginger brew, $9).

“We’re a very cocktail-driven concept,” says Mule, who is planning to expand his brand.

“I think the benefit of doing that is having a wide variety of things for people to drink, to enjoy.”

The vibe is important to Mule as well. Besides the Polynesian theme, Hula’s exudes midcentury cool.

“I like having grown up when I did, but if I had to pick another time to grow up, it would have been in the ’60s,” Mule says. “I would have been in a black suit and a thin tie, hanging out with the Rat Pack in Vegas in 1960.

“I think this concept brings it all back. It has a very midcentury feel to it, for sure, which is one of the reasons I’ve always embraced it and really enjoy it.”   

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