Decades-old Maui Sushi Business Still Going Strong
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Running a food business was never in Stella and Douglas Kodama’s plan in 1980 when they sought to purchase the property next to their own on Lower Main Street in Wailuku. They were eyeing that parcel, occupied by Miyako Sushi, to provide more parking for their tenant, the Holsum Bakery thrift store. But, Miyako Sushi’s owner at the time, Tad Nakamoto, would only sell the property to the Kodamas if they continued Miyako Sushi for at least five more years. Nakamoto wanted to make sure that his women workers, who were getting up there in age, would not be left suddenly without jobs.
So recalls Stella’s and Douglas’ son Michael, who was a student at the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa at the time. The Kodamas became the fourth owners of the sushi-making business. Kodama said his parents “had no clue” of how to operate a food business, but they agreed to Nakamoto’s terms anyway. While the younger Kodama was away in college in the early 1980s, his parents collected the deposits from the business and Miyako Sushi continued plugging along.
Michael Kodama had two options when he returned to Maui in 1986: He could either run the sushi business or install carpet and drapery at another family business, Standard Furniture, located down the street. He chose the food business. With so many other relatives involved in the furniture business, he decided to go with the sushi business, despite the fact that the five-year obligation to continue the sushi business had passed. Interestingly, the books showed that Miyako Sushi was turning a profit.
Then he began encountering problems.
One day, a customer came in. “Yesterday, your cone sushi was real sweet,” he said.
The next day another customer reported: “Only vinegary your sushi.”
And then a comment from another customer on the third day: “Eh, no more taste.”
“Three days in a row, three different comments,” Kodama said.
The young college graduate, who had no professional food experience, headed to the kitchen in the back of the building, where the ladies made the su, the vinegar mix to flavor the rice.
“‘Who is making the su?’” Kodama asked.
“I have three hands come up,” he said.
After having the ladies write down their recipes, Kodama said he “cherry-picked” the best parts of each recipe — some didn’t have enough of this; others had too much of other ingredients.
“They more-or-less had it,” Kodama said, adding, “What you (are tasting) today is what I made in 1986.” Apparently, that su, refined more than 30 years ago, is still a hit.
The Kodamas surmise that Miyako Sushi was in operation for about 60 years before they acquired it, which means it was likely established in the 1920s. More than a half-century later, it continues to be a local favorite.
The rolled sushi (maki sushi) and cone sushi (inarizushi) are among Miyako’s most popular items. They are distributed all over the Valley Isle — at Longs Drug stores, Minit Stop convenience stores and other outlets.
According to Kodama, 85 percent of Miyako’s business comes from its retail and restaurant customers, such as restaurants Tokyo Tei and Sam Sato’s.
The sushi coming out of the Miyako’s kitchen is still hand-rolled and garnished by hand.
Kodama said his family invested $50,000 in the purchase of two sushi-making machines from Japan. Unfortunately, they never worked out because the Hawai‘i-style sushi rice contains more sugar than sushi rice in Japan. The rice is thus stickier and doesn’t work well in machines, he explained.
Kodama instead relies on the experienced hands of his workers, most of whom are older and have the discipline to wake up in the wee hours of morning and churn out the rice products one-by-one. (Much to the delight of construction workers and fishermen, the shop opens at 4 a.m., so they can pick up their favorites before heading off to work or the beach. Deliveries are also made early in the day.)
The sushi ladies are expected to produce 35 to 50 rolls an hour.
“A good lady can roll 45 to 50 an hour,” Kodama said. “That’s about one (roll) a minute.”
Kodama’s eldest daughter, Cindy Watanabe, who works at the shop, joked about the number of bamboo mats, or makisu, the business goes through rolling sushi. Watanabe is one of the fastest sushi makers, said Kodama, adding that his 31-year-old daughter has precision skills and rolls her sushi tightly so that the contents, such as the tuna and carrots, do not fall out of the rice roll.
Ironically, Watanabe learned to roll sushi not at the family business, but at Waipuna Sushi in Mänoa, where she worked while attending UH. She later brought her skills back home to Maui and the family business.
With Miyako Sushi churning out as many as 2,000 inarizushi per day, speed and precision are a must. While on a Monday they can produce 1,300 cone sushi, come the weekend, that number can jump to 2,000 on a busy Saturday.
The cone is a seasoned aburage tofu pouch. Sushi rice mixed with carrots is stuffed into the light brown pouches.
Miyako Sushi also put an interesting twist on their inarizushi, combining it and a Spam musubi to create the “Spam musunari,” which is basically a Spam musubi made with inarizushi rice rather than plain white rice. Kodama said his workers liked the mix, so the family decided to give it a try.
He said the taste is appealing to some because of its sweet and salty combination — the sweetness coming from the inarizushi rice and the saltiness from the Spam.
“Some people like it from the get-go,” he said. “There is a good following.”
Another specialty sushi at Miyako’s is its California Roll. But it’s a different take on the typical California Roll because there’s lettuce in it. And, instead of using shredded crab or a crab mix, Miyako’s uses a piece of imitation crab about the size of a baby carrot stick.
The business also rounds out its selection of goodies with homemade snacks such as party mixes, a variety of mochi, boiled peanuts and seasoned dill ranch pretzels, to name a few. Watanabe used to make the party mixes only during the holiday season, but they were so popular that the family decided to carry it in the shop year-round.
Watanabe and her 29-year-old sister, Sandy Kodama, also make goodies-filled gift baskets during the holidays. Sandy, like her mother Judy, has a day job outside the sushi business. Michael Kodama always believed that not everyone in the family should be employed in the business, in case something happened to it.
Besides the mix of sushi and snacks, Miyako Sushi also sells sandwiches, salads, hot dogs and soft drinks at its shop in the Millyard in Wailuku. Previously home to Wailuku Sugar Co., the Millyard is now a mixed community of businesses, restaurants and offices.
The Kodama family moved Miyako Sushi to its current site on Wili Pa Loop in 1988, trading its properties along Lower Main Street for the Millyard site. Shortly after assuming ownership of the Lower Main Street property, Wailuku Sugar Co. approached the family in 1987, proposing a land swap, as the company was developing the area around Lower Main Street for the Iao Parkside housing development, Kodama explained.
Wailuku Sugar was especially interested in the property because a roadway was supposed to run through the Kodamas’ property. The roadway was instead built several properties makai of the former Kodama property. The deal left the Kodama family with a new business site and some money to construct a new building.
Miyako Sushi relocated to its new home, which was big enough to also showcase Kodama’s collectibles.
In a far section of the store are old-time local glass bottles, figurines, lamps and Hawaiiana collectibles. Kodama said he got the idea of adding memorabilia to the shop when the family took a trip to the Mainland. At one end of a long restaurant was the souvenir shop, with the dining area at the other end.
“Rather than people just wait for us to pack the sushi, they can look around — they won’t feel impatient,” he said.
The space gave Kodama a place to unload his extra collectibles and he found that it’s a way to also get new treasures and sell others.
Sometimes when Kodama buys collectibles from customers, “they end up buying more sushi,” he said.
“In any case, it’s a complement to the business.”
Melissa Tanji has been a reporter for The Maui News since 2000. The Maui native earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.