Exemplary Service Keeps Loyal Customers Coming Back
Gwen Battad Ishikawa
Long before the arrival in Hawai‘i of Costco and Sam’s Club, Shimaya Shoten was the place to go for food that could be purchased in bulk, especially ethnic fare. My grandmother used to sell food at community events, so she made one or two trips to Shimaya every month. As a youngster, I would tag along with my parents and grandma to the warehouse on Kohou Street to pick up flour for fried chicken, mochiko for desserts and dried shrimp for pinakbet. When I was old enough to drive, I became my grandma’s Shimaya driver, either bringing my grandma or picking up her order from the will call counter.
It’s been years since I stepped foot into the warehouse, even though it’s located right across the Kapälama Canal from our Herald offices. When I drive by their building and see all of the parking stalls filled, I feel happy knowing that even with the Mainland big box retailers in our Islands, Shimaya still has a following.
One hundred years in business. That’s an impressive milestone to reach, especially in this day and age.
For a company, especially one in food retailing, to remain in business for a century — and still going strong — is almost unheard of. And yet, that is the story of Shimaya Shoten.
Shimaya Shoten was founded in Honolulu on Aug. 1, 1917, by Hisaji Onoye, an immigrant from Kagawa-ken, Japan.
While in Hawai‘i on a business trip for Marushima Shoyu, which was owned by his wife’s family, Hisaji saw the opportunity to start his own business in Hawai‘i. After returning to Japan, he asked his father-in-law for a loan to help start the business. When his father-in-law turned him down, Hisaji and his wife decided to immigrate to Hawai‘i and open the business on their own using tanomoshi money. Shortly after settling in Hawai‘i, his wife died unexpectedly from a flu epidemic.
A tanomoshi is a group of individuals who put money into a fund and take turns bidding on the entire pot for personal or business reasons. Rather than going to a bank for a loan, where they were often turned down, many early businesspeople turned to the tanomoshi system to launch their business.
Hisaji used tanomoshi money to open Shimaya Shoten on River Street in Chinatown. It was located on the ground floor of the Taiheiyo Bussan building. Hisaji named the company Shimaya Shoten, taking the “Shima” from his home island of Shödoshima in Kagawa, and “Shoten,” from the Japanese word meaning “mercantile” or “business.” Shimaya Shoten would be his “island store.”
To help with the store’s day-to-day operations, Hisaji enlisted the help of two of his brothers, Araji and Isao Onoye, who came from Japan, and Fumiyo Kochi, the father of his new wife.
In 1922, Hisaji had married Chiyoko Kochi, with whom he had five children: sons Ichiro, Jiro and Hideo, and daughters Kazuko Ishida and Grace Hiroko Sonoda. Of the three brothers, only Ichiro survives.
Ichiro was 18 years old when he started working for the family business. He started at the bottom, learning everything about the company.
When World War II broke out, the Japanese American community immediately came under suspicion. Martial law was declared in Hawai‘i and prominent religious, business and community leaders were interned in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland. Japanese Americans were treated like the enemy.
Some Japanese-owned businesses were shuttered while others were not. The Onoye family managed to avoid internment and continue doing business throughout World War II. However, like all other Japanese businesses, they were not allowed to import anything from Japan.
Soon after starting work, Ichiro was drafted into the Army late in the war. After serving two years in Europe, he returned home.
Back in the family business, Shimaya served a wide clientele of all ethnic backgrounds, so they made sure their inventory was just as varied.
From the beginning, Shimaya sold strictly dried foods that they purchased from wholesalers Theo H. Davies and American Factors.
“They handled all the well known, nationally advertised brands and my father just bought from them and resold them,” Ichiro explained.
Shimaya was always a wholesale distributor and retailer. The retail side was open to the public, so anyone could come in and purchase items. The wholesale arm was geared toward small businesses and restaurants that needed to buy in big volume, items such as 100-pound bags of rice, flour or cornstarch. Large families could also buy items in bulk, and free delivery was available to nearby homes and businesses.
Because the River Street store had an open space fronting it, “stretch cars” — similar to today’s stretch limousines — came from all over the island to purchase goods.
“Where we were located was like a terminal,” Ichiro explained. “Drivers would pick up groceries for stores, too. And those days, there were trucks from different areas that would pick up groceries for stores in the country.”
In 1962, Shimaya Shoten moved from its River Street property to its present location on Kohou Street. The River Street operation had become too small and the city wanted to purchase the property to redevelop Chinatown.
The Kohou Street location, which Shimaya leases, is three times the size of the River Street location, with 35,000 square feet under the roof and another 5,000 square feet for parking.
Competition with Big Box Retailers
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, “big box” retailers Costco and Sam’s Club opened in Hawai‘i. Wal-Mart opened its first Hawai‘i store in 1993 and Target in 2009.
Even with the Mainland big box and national retail stores opening, Shimaya Shoten still managed to hold on its customers, said current president Keith Shota.
“But especially for mom and pop stores, when Wal-Mart and Target came, it kind of affected them,” he said.
Shota, a sansei, is the company’s third president. His mother-in-law, Kazuko, is the only one of the
Onoye siblings who didn’t work at Shimaya.
Although Shimaya carries brands similar to what can be found at Costco or Sam’s, Shota didn’t feel that much of a pinch. He illustrates his point using rice as an example.
“Y. Hata (another Hawai‘i wholesaler) and Shimaya were number one in rice. What happened is when Costco and Sam’s came, their rice (price) was much lower than Y. Hata and Shimaya, so it was competitive. Each company even had their own private brands.
“Some people feel that rice is rice. But variety has changed as years go by, so the grade is a little different. Rice now is better than 30, 40 years ago. Rice is evolving and variety has perfected itself. The flavoring is much better now.”
So while consumers can get their average grade rice from the big box retailers or local grocery stores, top quality rice brands can only be found at specialty ethnic retailers such as Marukai, Y. Hata and Shimaya.
Shota adds that Shimaya is the biggest distributor of Sho-chiku-bai mochi rice as well as mochiko flour, the Blue Star brand manufactured by Koda Farms.
Another reason Shota feels their customer base remains constant is because they can buy items in whatever volume they wish. “As compared to retail grocery stores, they might sell an item in small 6-ounce bags, whereas you can buy half a pound or a pound from us. Those little bags can add up. With us, you don’t pay for packaging,” he said.
Most of Shota’s knowledge of the business and its competition was learned on the job. He holds a bachelor’s degree in education from Whitworth College (now Whitworth University) in Spokane, Wash. But the family wanted him to take over the day-to-day operations, so he took night classes in business at Kapi‘olani Community College.
Like Ichiro, Shota started off working in the warehouse, unloading the containers and stocking merchandise, moving up to driver, warehouse supervisor, operations manager and, eventually, president in 2010.
Shimaya’s competitors, aside from Costco and Sam’s Club, are HFM and Y. Hata.
“We might be a few cents higher, but we try to beat them on the service side,” Shota said of Costco. “We have only one location in Hawai‘i, whereas they have 300 to 400 [stores], nationwide.
One example of their service is delivery to restaurants. Rather than just unloading the products from the trucks, Shimaya’s drivers will bring the products into the restaurant’s storeroom and rotate the stock so the newer items are placed in the back. “That’s all part of our service to the customer,” said Lawrence Ramelb, a 27-year employee.
Ramelb worked his way up from warehouse helper to driver. “Everyone helps each other out. When we’re not busy or when we come back from delivering, I become the ‘floor manager’ — I sweep the floor,” he said with a laugh.
Shimaya’s four delivery drivers cover the whole island, from the Leeward coast to O‘ahu’s south shore.
Asked who their direct local competitor is, Shota said that was a gray area. “[It would be] HFM Foodservice, but they’re also our customers, so that doesn’t mean they’re completely our competitor. It’s a small island, so we have to help each other as a distributor.”
The other would be Y. Hata & Co., which deals mostly with food service and will-call customers. They have a retail arm with Chef Zone, which carries chilled, frozen and dry goods, but “their strength is food service,” says Shota.
“It all depends on the customer,” says Shota. “People have their favorite store.”
In terms of favorite foods, Shota explained that their loyal customers seek them out for ethnic foods such as green tea, narazuke (melon soaked in miso sauce) rakkyo (pickled scallions), ume (plum), akamiso and shiramiso (red and white soybean paste). While most of these items can be found in any ethnic grocery store aisle, Shota said that each prefecture’s manufacturing process produces a different flavor, so it is the flavor profile that the customer is seeking when choosing to shop at Shimaya, especially if that particular item is exclusive to them.
Giving Back to the Community
Business has been steady over the years, but 1981 was a particularly good year for Shimaya Shoten. So good, that Hisaji Onoye decided to donate $100,000 to fund a scholarship, the Hisaji Onoye Endowed Scholarship Fund, at the University of Hawai’i at Mänoa. The scholarship is presently awarded by the UH Shidler College of Business.
In a 1981 Honolulu Star-Bulletin article, Ichiro spoke for his father Hisaji, who wasn’t fluent in English. “My father wanted to do something for the community, to say thank you for his success.”
“He wanted to start something that would be perpetual.” With the assistance of then-UH President Fujio Matsuda, who was Ichiro’s Japanese language school classmate, two scholarships were created within the University of Hawai‘i Foundation — one awarded based on financial need and the other on merit. The interest from the donation, which was invested, funds the two scholarships.
Shimaya Shoten has also made donations to Kuakini Medical Center.
Ichiro referred to himself as a “speculator” rather than the company president.
“When I think we’re going to be short on supply of something, I would buy it. I used to buy sugar in September for the holidays. If I waited till the last minute, I may not get it in time.”
Shota explained that certain foods like chestnuts or dry beans might only be harvested once a year. “We have to guess what the customer might want and store it in the chiller,” he said.
One of the most interesting products Shimaya brought in recently was Tabasco® Soy Sauce. “It was advertised in a Japanese magazine and it was being shipped to Japanese tourists on Guam. We would bring in 60 to 80 cases a month, but it was discontinued about three months ago,” Shota said.
Their most unusual product? Narazuke, said Shota. “Although you can find it at other stores, our flavor, texture and crunchiness is different since it’s unique to a certain prefecture.” Narazuke is a melon soaked in a miso sauce, and is especially good over hot rice.
Future of Shimaya Shoten
Today, Shimaya employs 20 people; about six of them are family members.
One of them is Felice Iwanaga who has worked in the office as an auditor for 21 years. She is responsible for taking orders from drop-in customers or those wanting to purchase bulk wholesale goods.
“You get to know the customers as the years go by,” she said. “We share stories, or food, talking story about each others’ lives and Korean dramas.”
When Shota took over in 2010, he computerized the operation. Vendors asking for descriptions of products, price lists or invoices can now receive it in a matter of minutes through email, as opposed to fax or by postal mail.
At age 64, Shota is looking toward the future and the possibility of retirement so he can spend time with his grandchildren. But with the fourth and fifth generations of the family not showing an interest in taking over the business, he has put off thoughts of retiring for the time being.
Ichiro’s Final Thoughts
Asked about the best advice his father gave to him, Ichiro replied, “Nothing much, just be up and up with the customer.” And Shimaya’s secret to staying in business for a century? “Not pulling anything fast on the customer.”
Ichiro gave an example of what Shimaya did during the 1949 dock strike.
“The first thing mothers buy is Carnation milk for the babies and rice. At one point, rice was brought in by parcel post. The stamp cost more than the rice. So when we got our shipment of rice in, we packaged the rice in three-pound bags for a week. Then we supplied our regular customers first and then the rest. Two lines went around the block; we sold out in two days,” he recalled.
Rice was a topic that we kept coming back to during our interview. Ichiro disclosed that he even considered buying a milling machine so that he could buy the rice grains and polish them himself. He even brought in a rice plant so that customers could see where rice came from.
“Thirty-five to 40 years ago, I had the mill send me 50 pounds of brown rice and I would share it with a friend whose wife was allergic to white rice,” he said.
“I thought about bringing in a small milling machine so I could polish the rice myself and sell it to customers.
“I would have had a lot of fun,” Ichiro mused.
Despite not having their own machine, Shimaya Shoten is the largest distributor of brown rice, their exclusive brand being Gen-Ji-Mai rice. Shota explained that it’s not straight brown rice since it’s milled to 20 percent, meaning some of the bran is taken out.
In 2011, Ichiro suffered a stroke. Although he says his body is “no good” anymore, at 94 years young, his spirits are still high. He shared “good fun” stories about his escapades at Shimaya, but none that he would allow on the record. His condominium is full of blooming orchids of different varieties, so much so that you would think you were in a garden section rather than an apartment. “I like flowers,” he said with a smile. “I used to have anthuriums, but it took up too much space, so I switched.”