WRITTEN BY DENISE LAITINEN
WHAT IS A GROCERY STORE? How does it differ from a market? How have supermarkets evolved over the decades in Hawaii? And how will people get groceries in times of disaster?
Look up market in the dictionary and you’ll find, “a regular gathering of people for the purchase and sale of provisions, livestock, and other commodities.” Grocery store is defined in more simplistic terms as, “a grocer’s store or business.”
Hawaii residents, like people throughout the country, tend not to spend a lot of time thinking about their local grocery store. They wonder what’s on sale, what food staple they need to pick up on their way home from work, and what they need in order to prepare family meals for the week.
Depending on where you live in Hawaii, your definition of a grocery store can have vastly different iterations ranging from a large Costco style store with a cornucopia of produce to a locally owned shop.
Ask people about supermarkets and the names of several large national chains are usually the first to be mentioned. Yet it has been the local family-owned stores, often times started by immigrants to Hawaii, that have supplied island families with food for generations. These small stores, woven into the fabric of island communities, supported local sports teams, civic clubs, and other organizations. The past year has seen the closing or sale of several of these stores, some nearly 100 years old.
GENERAL STORES ROOTED IN COMMUNITY
Hawaii’s earliest grocery stores were general stores, carrying a little bit of everything. Take, for instance, Oshima’s on the Big Island. Founded by Kanesaburo Oshima who immigrated to Hawaii in 1907, Oshima’s opened its doors in 1926 on Mamalahoa Highway in Kainaliu, the heart of the Big Island’s coffee belt. The market was known for its diverse array of groceries from freshly caught fish to beer, plus a little of everything else, including a pharmacy. Oshima’s so epitomized the feel of old Hawaii that when Disney’s Aulani Resort on Oahu built a historic general store on the premises, they modeled it after Oshima’s. The store was owned and operated by the Oshima family until it closed in 2018 after 92 years in business.
Nearby in Holualoa, the Keauhou General Store also closed in 2018, after serving the community for 99 years. For decades the store sold everything from bread to bicycles, providing groceries and sundries to the families that worked on nearby coffee plantations. In more recent years, it had charmed legions of visitors, while still providing necessities for local residents.
In April 2018, Ishihara Market, a Kauai favorite in Waimea known for its fresh poke, announced it was being sold to Kalama Beach Company, part of the Sullivan Family of Companies, which also owns the Foodland chain of supermarkets. That store will remain open and retain its original name.
The recent spate of grocery store closings/sales caps nearly two decades of grocery store consolidation in the industry in Hawaii.
The past 20 years have seen some chains close, be sold, and merge. Founded in 1926 on Kauai by two brothers, Saburo and Furutaro Kawakami and their wives, Big Save Markets went on to become one of the largest and oldest retailers on that island with six locations. In 2011, Times Supermarkets bought Big Save with five of the original Big Save stores still in operation today.
Times Supermarket has also gone through its share of changes. One of the largest supermarket chains in the state, it too was founded by two brothers, Albert and Wallace Teruya, whose parents immigrated to Hawaii from Okinawa. Launched in 1949 with a single store on Oahu, Times Supermarkets has grown to 17 Times supermarkets on Oahu, Maui, and Kauai, the five Big Save Stores on Kauai, plus Shima’s Supermarket and Fujioka’s Wine Times, both on Oahu. In 2002 the locally owned Times chain was bought by PAQ Inc., a California-based firm.
Maui has also seen its share of local, family-owned grocery stores fall by the wayside in the past 15-20 years. In 2005, Ooka’s, Maui’s last big locally owned grocery store closed its doors in downtown Wailuku after 64 years, leaving the community without a grocery store until Safeway built a store nearby. That same year, Ah Fook’s Supermarket, a Kahului landmark since 1917, burned to the ground. Other family run grocery stores like Azeka Market in Kihei and Nagasako Supermarket in Lahaina preceded their closings.
While many of Hawaii’s mom and pop style grocery stores are now gone, replaced by larger chains, such as Safeway, Costco, and Whole Foods, there are still many independent grocery stores and multi-generational supermarket stores that continue to flourish.
Indeed, natural food stores, such as Down to Earth, which operates five stores on Oahu and one on Maui, Mana Foods in Paia, Maui, and Papaya’s Natural Foods in Kapa’a, Kauai have been operating for decades. In fact, Down to Earth, which started as a small store front in Wailuku in 1977, recently opened a new location in Kaka‘ako on Oahu, is expanding their Pearlridge location, and plans to move their Kailua store to a larger space, occupying the former Macy’s building in that community.
Locally owned supermarket chains also continue to hold their own. Foodland is the largest locally owned supermarket chain with more than 30 supermarkets on four islands, plus a chain of smaller stores called Malama Market, with three locations on the Big Island in Pahoa, Ocean View, and Honoka‘a and two markets on Oahu, in Haleiwa and Kapolei. Foodland, which was founded in 1948 by Maurice Sullivan, an Irish immigrant stationed on Oahu during World War II, and Malama Market are independently managed and operated but are part of the Sullivan Family of Companies that encompasses 150 businesses across 11 states.
Perhaps the oldest family-run supermarket chain in the state is KTA Super Stores on the Big Island. Founded in 1916 in Hilo by husband and wife Koichi & Taniyo Taniguchi, the original 500-square-foot store has grown to seven supermarkets across the island.
Ask independent grocery store owners the secret of their longevity and they point to their community involvement.
“I think the organization has always had a deep connection to the community,” says KTA President and Chief Operating Officer Toby Taniguchi, great-grandson of founders Koichi and Taniyo Taniguchi. The Japanese have a saying, “okage sama de” meaning, “we are what we are because of you.
“It’s because of our community, our business partners, and our store associates that we are able to exist. We’re very grateful and humbled to be afforded the opportunity to serve the community and we’ve never taken that for granted.”
“My great grandfather, grandfather, and my dad all felt that the store has an obligation to participate in and support the communities that we reside in. The communities are what support the stores and therefore the stores must support the communities.”
Russell Ruderman, owner of Island Naturals, a chain of three health food stores on the Big Island in Hilo, Kona, and Pahoa, says it is only natural for
locally owned stores to have a deeper commitment to the community.
“I think any locally owned business is going to stick it out because it’s easy for a chain to close a store, whereas if you are locally owned it’s all we have,” explains Russell. “Secondly, our ties to the community are much deeper than a mainland chain.”
Laura Orr, owner of Harvest Market in Hanalei, Kauai, echoes the sentiments of Russell and Toby, referring to Harvest Market is an “old school natural food store” where close to half their produce is grown on Kauai. “We’re community oriented and focused on customer service. We’re not like Foodland or other large supermarkets and I like to keep it that way.”
At the other end of the state on the Big Island, “about 60% of our produce is locally grown,” adds Russell. “In our kitchens we are using a lot of produce that is all local and 20 percent of peripheral items, like eggs and juices, are local.”
At KTA in Hilo, Toby says roughly 50 percent of the entire produce department is locally grown, with that number climbing to 98 percent when it comes to leafy greens and 20 percent of the their fruits and vegetables locally sourced.
In an effort to support local farmers and food producers, KTA launched its own line of food products, called Mountain Apple Brand®, in 1992. Today, the brand includes more than 200 products from 50 vendors all grown, processed, or manufactured on the Big Island.
With the growing popularity of farm to table cooking and organic foods, it’s encouraging to see so many local food markets committed to selling a large percentage of locally grown food.
And yet, as the world’s most remote island chain, these stores play a critical role in Hawaii’s food security when it comes to natural disasters.
“There’s no large warehousing of food in the islands that I’m aware of that would last more than two weeks,” says Russell. He should know. In addition to being the owner of Island Naturals, Russell is also the State Senator for District 2 on the Big Island, representing the district of Puna and the town of Pahala in Ka’u, an area encompassing roughly 500 square miles (as a point of comparison, the entire island of Oahu is 597 square miles.)
WHEN DISASTER STRIKES
Hawaii saw its fair share of disasters in 2018 with historic floods impacting Kauai and Oahu and the Kilauea lava eruption on the Big Island destroying 700 homes, covering major roadways and inundating entire subdivisions. Locally owned grocery stores became a lifeline in hard-hit rural communities providing fresh produce and a smile to customers even as their own staff were being impacted by disaster.
“We stayed open for the sake of our employees and our community,” says Russell.
When a lava flow threatened Pahoa in 2014 forcing other markets to close, Island Naturals stayed open. “Back then we made arrangements to bring in generators. We also got assurances from HELCO and our suppliers that we could maintain power if lava crossed Highway 130 and our suppliers told us they would continue delivering. When we got those assurances we made the commitment to stay open.”
It was a tougher challenge in 2018. At least six employees at the Pahoa natural food store lost their homes to lava and 15 employees had to evacuate their homes and relocate. Numerous daily earthquakes occurred for months forcing Pahoa Island Naturals staff to place masking tape across the front of shelves holding glass bottles to prevent them from falling on the ground.
There were days when the air quality in Pahoa was so bad from toxic, volcanic gases being emitted in nearby Leilani Estates that the store had to close and send employees home. Even mail service was cancelled on some occasions due to the poor air quality.
“The stress was palatable. You could see it on people’s faces,” notes Russell. “Our business was down 40-50 percent with the 2018 lava threat but we never considered closing.” Despite the downturn in business, Island Naturals worked with its vendors and donated food and beverages to organizations such as Pu‘uhonou o Puna, Sacred Heart Church, and World Central Kitchen. “We were able to weather the storm and our commitment to our communities is very strong.”
Laura says it was Harvest Market’s commitment to community that helped them deal with the historic floods that devastated the region last April.
“The floods were devastating for everybody,” says Laura. “It was unbelievable. I had three to four employees that were stranded in Haena.”
She notes that while the store did have to close for a couple days they did not have problems with deliveries coming into Hanalei. That enabled them to make sandwiches and snacks for all the volunteers that were helping to take food out to residents stranded in Haena. They went above and beyond during the flooding to serve the community and are still recovering months later.
Given the state’s geographic isolation and reliance on food being imported into Hawaii, it’s a good thing that many of Hawaii’s grocery stores are committed to serving their communities. Because in Hawaii, it’s a matter of when, not if, disaster will strike. [eHI]