Energy-Efficient and Technically Innovative, KTA Express is Much More Than a Convenience Store
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
To the uninitiated, the simple green-and-white commercial building along the Hawai‘i Belt Road (or Mämalahoa Highway, if you prefer) in South Kona might not seem like such a big deal. After all, the building itself has been a familiar sight in Kealakekua for some 35 years — first as the Kamigaki Store and then as a sadly vacant site for nearly a decade.
Besides a fresh coat of paint, the structure is now distinguished by a circular white sign declaring it to be a KTA Express, which offers the first hint that there may be more lying beneath the shiny metal siding than first meets the eye.
KTA Superstores president and chief operating officer Toby Taniguchi explained that KTA’s relationship with the property almost began years earlier, when the possibility of purchasing the site first came up. A deal could not be worked out at the time, however. The property was eventually sold to HouseMart, a family-run corporation that owns and operates Ace Hardware and Ben Franklin Crafts franchises in Hawai‘i and beyond.
HouseMart chief executive officer Wayne Kamitaki broached the idea of working out a lease agreement with his longtime friend, Barry Taniguchi, KTA’s chairman and CEO. Barry informed his son, Toby, who, in turn, worked with Wayne’s brother, Guy Kamitaki, to hammer out a lease agreement that was agreeable to both parties.
For Toby, the work was just beginning. Although the original Kamigaki Market was a grocery store, Toby quickly learned that the building’s interior had to be completely gutted. Built around 1983-1984, the building’s shell and roof were still in remarkably good shape. A few puka were patched and the building was repainted. Everything else — plumbing, electrical, refrigeration, air conditioning and more — was replaced. “The shell is the only part of the building that is not new,” said Toby.
The building encompasses 13,000 square feet of retail floor space with a 3,000 square foot mezzanine for use as offices and storage. ”It’s smaller than our other stores, thus the term ‘KTA Express,’” Toby explained. “We have to be a little more selective in what we carry. We try to provide things that people want and need most on an everyday basis.”
Still, the new “Express” market is much, much more than a convenience store, with well-stocked liquor, deli, bakery, meat and seafood departments. The store carries KTA’s private label Mountain Apple Brand (local) and 1916 (non-local items named for the year KTA was established) products. “We carry lots of fresh food in the store, such as produce, meats, seafood,” Toby added. “We use local vendors as much as possible — 90 percent of our leafy greens come from local vendors.” The store is also partnering with AFC Sushi and L&L Hawaiian Barbecue to provide hot and freshly prepared food.
The building’s rather unremarkable facade belies some surprising discoveries within. “It’s different,” Toby said of the store’s hip interior look and design. “It’s not your downtown Hilo KTA (KTA’s oldest store),” he acknowledged with a smile.
And the features run more than skin deep. For example, the entire store is illuminated with energy-efficient LED lighting. “There isn’t a single incandescent lamp in the building,” Toby said. Display cases are also new, energy-efficient models. “Proximity lighting” fixtures turn on when a customer approaches to open the case door, then turns off itself if no one is around.
Besides looking good, the store’s contemporary no-wax flooring also promises to save a lot of money in daily maintenance costs, Toby added. He is especially excited about KTA Express’ brand new POS (point of sale) registers, the first store in KTA’s seven-market chain to run the next generation system. The new POS registers feature chip readers, can handle features such as Apple Pay and can accommodate other high tech functions. The system is also set up to ring up food products being purchased from AFC Sushi and L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.
A coin counting and conversion machine, a video kiosk that dispenses DVD rentals, an ATM and money order services are additional customer services featured at the new location.
As KTA’s first new store to open in 28 years, the KTA Express in Kealakekua provides a welcomed opportunity for many KTA “associates” (employees) to grow with the new technology. Led by store director Hoku Kamakau, many KTA associates are being given the opportunity to rise through the ranks to fill new positions as managers and department managers. To start, the store hired about 60 employees — nearly all of them from the Kona side of the island. “We’re looking to hire more in time,” Toby said. “We have a solid team. They know what they’re doing. We’re grateful for that.”
If KTA is happy to be part of the community, the feedback it has received since the store’s soft opening on April 5 and grand opening on April 14 has demonstrated just how much the community appreciates having KTA in return.
“The community has been very receptive,” said Toby. Many customers have expressed both joy and relief to finally have their own market right in the middle of Kealakekua town since the Kamigaki store closed in 2009. Since then, the closest grocery store options for the area’s residents were ChoiceMART in Captain Cook or KTA Superstores in Keauhou.
“Kona traffic has grown notoriously bad,” Toby said. “People don’t want to sit through busy traffic and burn all that gas on a day-to-day basis.” A drive to Kailua-Kona or Kaloko, for example, can take up to one hour each way, depending on traffic.
Like it is the case in other locales, the KTA Express in Kealakekua is already becoming a vital social hub where people from the surrounding community are likely to bump into each other, exchange greetings and catch up on the latest news. I think we have a very warm store, very inviting. We’re proud of it,” he said.
“Overall, we view this as a win-win-win opportunity,” said Toby. “Usually, commercial developments involve everyone trying to make as much money as they can for themselves. In this case, ownership gave us a good rent structure so that we can succeed; our associates win, and the community wins. They put their trust in us and we will do everything we can to warrant their trust.”
The new KTA Express in Kealakekua is open daily from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Arnold Hiura is the executive director of the Hawaii Japanese Center in Hilo and a former Hawai‘i Herald editor. Arnold and his wife Eloise also own and operate the editorial and communications company, MBFT Media.