An Achievement for a Small Family Business in Waipahu
Kristen Nemoto Jay
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
On a humid October day in Waipahu, Ira Ishihara — owner of the Ishiharaya store — moves swiftly in between sections of his senbei-making machine, juggling tasks like a maestro of a well-rehearsed symphony. One minute Ira is preparing the batter for the mixer and next he’s checking two six-foot baking sheets to ensure the senbei are cooked and heated through.
Meanwhile every 15 minutes he scrapes the machine’s conveyer-belt of crumbs to provide a clean slate for the next batch to shape and cook properly. The heat in the factory is borderline unbearable, peaking at times over 110 degrees. This year’s delay in fall weather has turned Ira’s work zone into a sweatbox, where he often labors through an eight-hour straight shift.
“This is the closest thing to experiencing a three-ring circus,” laughs Ira through his cloth facemask as he tends to the mixer. He then bolts to the end of the conveyer belt where cooked senbei have nearly overflowed into a large metal barrel and quickly replaces it with an empty one. NPR plays loudly in the background as Ira constantly moves from one workstation to the next. Mixer. Baker. Scraper. Barrel. Not always in that order, and it doesn’t include many other tasks at hand during his eight-hour shift, as Ishihara continues to sprint from one duty to the next.
The results from his labor are senbei, Ja-panese rice or wheat crackers that were introduced to Japan from China. The sweet version of this crunchy snack (which tastes more like what Ishiharaya calls a “plantation tea cookie” than the usual salty rice cracker) became popular in Hawai‘i among Japanese immigrants who came to work in the plantation fields. Ira is Ishiharaya’s third generation to take over the store and continues to craft the delicious senbei that his grandparents once made. He has also introduced new popular flavors such as poi and coconut and kabocha (pumpkin) spice. Ginger is still the most popular senbei item, coated with a white-icing glaze.
It’s hard work to keep his family’s shop in business but worth every minute, says Ishihara. As 2020 has been a challenge for his company, as well as for thousands of other small businesses in Hawai‘i, Ira is grateful to be able to remain in business despite the store’s unknown future. What ultimately drives Ishihara’s gratitude is the fact that this year marks Ishiharaya’s momentous 100th year anniversary. A milestone that only a few of Hawai‘i’s locally owned and operated businesses can say they’ve achieved.
“It’s mind blowing that we’ve been around for this long,” said Ira in a prior FaceTime interview. “Being around for 100 years, it’s pretty amazing for such a small business.”
Ishiharaya first began as the Ishihara Store in 1920, a general home-goods shop located near the sugar mill plantation on Waipahu Depot Street. It was run by Ira’s grandfather, Nobuo Ishihara, who emigrated from Japan to O‘ahu in 1918. Nobuo first worked in the pineapple fields before taking over a shop that his cousin had already owned in 1920. When Nobuo started running it, he was often seen at many community events such as the annual bon dance or seasonal baseball games, selling hot dogs, candy, donuts and ice cream.
For years thereafter, Nobuo kept the store running as a general mom-and-pop shop which became a staple within the community. He began to add senbei to the list of products sold from the Ishihara Store after he constructed an amateur senbei maker machine that involved a hand crank wheel and a fire burning over kiawe wood.
When the store closed during World War II, Nobuo gained interest in making and selling senbei products from his store after meeting a local businessman who made the crackers from a senbei-making machine that was imported from Japan. When the war ended and the Ishihara Store reopened its doors, Nobuo had a new gas-fire operated senbei machine that made enough senbei to keep up with the store’s popular demand. Word spread fast throughout the small town of Waipahu as the Ishihara Store continued to produce a delicious and consistent product. A treat that reminded many customers, mostly plantation workers, of their lives once lived in Japan.
Nobuo continued to make senbei at his shop until he passed in 1959. Sasayo Ishihara, Nobuo’s wife, took over the shop soon after her husband’s death and continued to specialize in making senbei.
It was during the late 1960s when Ira recalls his first memories of his family’s store. His crying fits with his babysitter would often result with him getting picked up by his parents and dropped off into the arms of his grandmother or any of the store’s workers. The years that followed have filled Ira’s memory bank with nothing but fond memories.
“I remember customers coming in and yelling ‘Mama-san! I want donuts!’” says Ira with a hearty chuckle. When his grandmother retired and his uncle Mitsuo Ishihara took over in 1971 and changed the store’s name to Ishiharaya, Ira especially remembers the store as more of a family gathering place than a business.
“I remember my whole family there,” Ira continues. “My aunties, cousins, uncle … It was all good memories that I recall. Just spending time with everyone.”
When Mitsuo decided to retire and Ira proposed to take over the family business, much to Ira’s surprise his uncle tried to talk him out of it. Mi-tsuo was more concerned with his nephew’s future than the continuation of their family’s shop.
“He thought I was crazy,” laughed Ira. “I was shocked. I thought he would want someone to take it over because there was no one else who could otherwise.”
It was not a business to make money, Uncle Mitsuo pressed, and the amount of hard work would always outweigh any feelings of reward. After back-and-forth discussions, and Ira deciding to keep his full-time job at Delta Airlines “just in case,” Mitsuo agreed to help turn the store over to Ira in 2000.
Ira was still living in Los Angeles at the time, but used his flying privileges to and from O‘ahu to learn more about the family business during his days off. When Ira officially took over and permanently moved back home to O‘ahu in 2001, he finally understood why his uncle tried to talk him out of taking over.
“I thought ‘what did I get myself into?’” said Ira as he described the piling mistakes (and broken senbei) that he made during his first year. After many trials and errors, and nearly a year of learning the timing of each task, Ira was finally able to get his rhythm going.
Today, 20 years later since he took over the family business, Ira is honored to continue his family’s tradition of making senbei and especially happy to keep the community connected to its historical roots.
“One of the things that keeps me going is having people come in and saying they’re so glad we’re still open,” says Ira who just retired from Delta Airlines in August due to the pandemic. “When I was working both jobs for Delta and Ishiharaya, I didn’t have the time that I have now to interact with the customers. Now that I have more time, it gives me a boost to know that what I’m doing still matters.”
Back to the humid day in October, Ishiharaya has recently reopened its doors since its
summer-long shutdown due to the state’s pandemic regulations. Residing along the “newer” area of Waipahu Depot Street, next to Servco Toyota, it has ample parking. While Ishihara is in the factory making senbei, Janet Shibuya, a retired nurse and one of Ishihara’s part-time workers, is in the front juggling phone orders, packaging senbei and welcoming customers into the store.
Gary Yoshinaga, a Waipahu resident and long-time Ishiharaya customer, enters the store and asks Shibuya if “get any kuzu?”
“Yes, hold on one minute,” said Shibuya as she opens the door to the store’s storage room. She quickly returns with two large bags filled with mostly broken pieces of various senbei. Dubbed “kuzu,” also known as “rejects” to Shibuya and many of Ishiharaya’s regular customers, these pieces were burnt, cracked or both and therefore not fit to be among the other nicely baked and packaged senbei, and sold for a cheaper price.
“Oh good,” said Yoshinaga as he sees the two large packages of kuzu senbei in Shibuya’s hands. “I no need the fancy packaging that’s why. My neighbors don’t care. They just like the taste.”
They exchange hearty laughs through their cloth masks as Shibuya points out that Ishiharaya doesn’t like making kuzu because that means they made too many mistakes that day. Yoshinaga understands but says he’ll always come back to check – just in case they do.
After Yoshinaga pays and waves goodbye, Shibuya goes back to hand-inserting various senbei into the nice packages. Ishihara can be seen through the store’s glass window, working from task to task. It’s a perfect view that pays homage to the many black-and-white photos that hang on the wall next to the glass window, including a portrait of Ishihara’s grandparents.
Although Ishihara is unsure about the store’s future, his main goal is simply to keep his workers and his customers safe while continuing to make a consistent product. He also tries to remember to stay positive as he knows many other businesses have not been as lucky this year.
“Sometimes we all get caught up when we’re busy,” said Ishihara during the FaceTime interview. “It’s humbling for me to see customers still wanting to come back to give our senbei as housewarming gifts or for someone’s graduation. It’s such an old-school product and they still enjoy it. I’m just glad to be able to still make the [senbei].”
Located at 94-101 Waipahu Depot St., #B,
Ishiharaya is open Tuesday through Saturday
from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Kristen Nemoto Jay was born and raised in Waimänalo. Besides working as a freelance writer, she also tutors part-time at her alma mater, Kailua High School, and is a yoga instructor at CorePower Yoga. Kristen earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from Chapman University and her master’s in journalism from DePaul University.