Mom-and-Pop Shops Persevere Through the Pandemic
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Wahiawä Town is like an island within an island in central O‘ahu. It is bordered by the north and south forks of Kaukonahua Stream, Ko‘olau foothills to the east and Lake Wilson to the west. For over 122 years, these natural borders have kept Wahiawä a small town, an ‘ohana community for those who live there.
Wahiawä was established as a settlement association on June 17, 1898, by the land commission, just a month before the U.S. Congress annexed Hawai‘i. In the early 1900s, Wahiawä was known as the “Land of a Million Pines.” The pineapple plantations and Schofield Army Barracks that surrounded Wahiawä helped to build this town, along with the humble mom-and-pop shops that provided needed supplies and services.
“ a variety of items like Chantilly cake, custard pie, half-moon pie (apple turnover) and butter rolls. But it’s the brownies that are Kilani’s claim to fame; available with original-style walnuts or chocolate chips, they are chewy with a strong (but not too sweet) chocolate flavor and always topped — in Kilani’s signature style — with powdered sugar.”
Hard work, sacrifice, dedication and perseverance are the foundation of the mom-and-pop, as they were for their owners’ ancestors who founded these shops. Those immigrant entrepreneurs had the grit to persevere through the Great Depression and World War II.
Today, the COVID-19 pandemic, considered the worst global health crisis in a century, is testing the limits of our beloved mom-and-pop shops. With the coronavirus’ devastating impact on our economy, Hawai‘i in late September had among the nation’s highest rates of business closures, either temporarily or permanently. Losing a mom-and-pop hurts the community and takes away from its identity.
Wahiawä is home to iconic family businesses such as Dot’s Restaurant, Sawada Store and Sunnyside Restaurant. In this story, I will share the experiences
of Kilani Bakery and Shige’s Saimin Stand, both multi-generational mom-and-pop shops which persevere through this unprecedented crisis.
“Old school” – That is how Sidney Takara and his wife, Dawn, described themselves; it’s also the successful business model for their 61-year old Kilani Bakery.
All the products the bakery offers were created by Sidney’s father, Walter Takara, and have remained the same over the years. Everything from the closely held recipes Sidney inherited, down to the brand of the ingredients, have stayed constant. Sidney said his dad would purchase the best-quality ingredients in order to get the best results.
Kilani Bakery is known for a variety of items like Chantilly cake, custard pie, half-moon pie (apple turnover) and butter rolls. But it’s the brownies that are Kilani’s claim to fame; available with original-
style walnuts or chocolate chips, they are chewy with a strong (but not too sweet) chocolate flavor and always topped — in Kilani’s signature style — with powdered sugar. Customers crave it, and it’s a popular omiyage that is sure to please.
“We want to be an old school bakery – a place where people can come and relive their childhood days and introduce their younger generations to things they grew up with,” says Sidney.
Sidney’s grandfather, Kosuke Takara, emigrated from Oroku, Okinawa, like so many other entrepreneurs who created successful, twentieth-century, food businesses in the islands. Kosuke worked at a sugar plantation in Hakalau on the Big Island. After his contract ended, he and his wife, Otome, relocated to Wai‘alae-Kahala on O‘ahu. He worked as a yardman in Pacific Heights, and after work, he would make his rounds picking-up food waste for the pig farm that he and Otome ran. Sidney’s dad, Walter, was the youngest of their four children.
Walter learned his baking skills under the tutelage of Chosei Zukeran, an immigrant from Tamagusuku, Okinawa, and founder of 9th Avenue Bakery in Kaimukï. This is where Walter met his future wife, Beatrice, Chosei’s daughter, who also worked at the bakery.
After getting married, Walter and Beatrice set out to run their own business. They had an opportunity to purchase a building on Kilani Avenue in Wahiawä. From Oct. 8 to 10, 1959, less than two months after statehood, Kilani Bakery held its grand opening, offering specials like a Delite cake for $1.30 and an apple pie for 90 cents.
Walter could bake an array of pastries, pies and cakes; he was also skilled at decorating wedding and children’s birthday cakes, which helped their business to flourish from the outset. Decorating cakes takes artistic skill; he had to create a palette of colored frosting in house. A baker getting an order for a custom cake is like an artist getting a commission for a painting. With talent like Walter’s, he got a lot of commissioned work.
Kilani Bakery was open seven days a week, and Walter worked every day until his late 70s or early 80s. He finally gave in, taking a day or two off after his kids twisted his arm to slow down.
Sidney started working part-time at the bakery from his intermediate-school days doing entry-level work while picking up skills along the way. Eventually, his dad taught him everything he knew. Sidney also has that innate skill for decorating cakes by continuing the tradition of in-house, custom-made colors of frosting.
Dawn came to work part-time at the bakery during her high-school years. And as Walter and Beatrice found love in a bakery, so, too, did Sidney and Dawn who eventually got married.
About a decade ago, Sidney and Dawn, together with Sidney’s brother, Jeffery, who had gone to baking school in Minnesota, took over the business when Walter finally retired.
Business was steady until the COVID -19 pandemic broke and the bakery went dark on two separate lockdowns totaling two and a half months. To make matters worse, weekday road construction in front of the bakery from August to mid-November caused more harm to the business than the pandemic, according to Sidney. There were times when the entry to the parking lot was blocked.
“It has been a scary time not knowing what the future holds. It was difficult watching our employees go through the unemployment process during the lockdowns,” said Sidney. They kept their employees on medical insurance and hired all of them back as soon as the lockdowns were lifted.
Then on Oct. 20, KHON2 TV broadcast a news feature called “Hardworking Hawai‘i” on Kilani Bakery. In it, the Takaras said that it’s no longer about making money; it’s simply about surviving for their customers.
After the feature aired, members of the community showed-up in droves, creating a constant line outside the bakery on weekends. I stood in line the Saturday after the KHON2 feature, and it was heartening to see so many people making a difference for this small mom-and-pop.
Dawn said, “We honestly have the best customers in the world. The love and support they have shown us throughout this pandemic are incredible.” Sidney added, “We try to overcome every obstacle and struggle thrown our way because without our customers, we would be nothing.”
Sidney and Dawn have their son and daughter, Gavin and Ashley, poised to take over the old-school bakery. They have been working alongside their dad, just as Sidney did with his. And Ashley inherited the Takara artistic ability for decorating cakes. Sidney said, “It was grandma and grandpa’s hope that our children would continue their legacy. My son and daughter have committed to do so, and for that, I am extremely grateful.” Sidney closed by saying, “We hope they can continue this legacy throughout their lifetime, but running a small mom-and-pop bakery is not an easy thing to do in this age of big-box stores and chains. So, only time will tell.”
Shige’s Saimin Stand
The diners came from Hale‘iwa and Waialua the day Ross and JoAnn Shigeoka hung their Shige’s Saimin Stand sign in March 1990. The word had gotten out that the grandson of Fujimatsu and Yoshii Nakai, who ran Nakai Saimin in Hale‘iwa from the early 1950s to 1980, was opening a saimin stand in Wahiawä. Ross said, “Those customers from the North Shore gave us the start we needed.” This was before the coconut wireless went out in Wahiawä.
Those North Shore customers went 10 years without their favorite Nakai saimin. But food memories are forever; popular dishes are multi-sensory down to the finer details. “They remembered everything from the style of noodle, the flavor of the soup and even the aroma when they entered Nakai Saimin. That aroma memory was brought back at Shige’s,” Ross said.
Ross makes the same style of noodle his grandfather made, which is flat and thin. Ross knows his grandfather’s soup recipe, but he tweaked it — a change which did not go unnoticed by those North Shore saimin connoisseurs. With a grin, Ross said, “We heard all their comments.” But those connoisseurs understood that a good soup and noodle and the harmony between them are what makes a great saimin. Fujimatsu’s grandson’s saimin won their approval, and they became loyal customers.
Fujimatsu emigrated from Fukushima, Japan, in the early 1900s at the urging of his cousin, who ran a saimin stand in Waipahu. Fujimatsu, a skilled carpenter, was able to find work as a handyman and also performed car repairs to make a living.
With the help of his cousin, Fujimatsu and his wife Yoshii opened Nakai Saimin across the street from what was the Haleiwa Theater. And Nakai Saimin was also next to a pool hall with a convenient indoor entrance between them. As the saying goes – location, location, location. Between the theater and pool hall, Nakai Saimin had a steady flow of customers.
They initially tailored their hours to those theater and pool-hall crowds, opening only on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 p.m. to midnight. They spent weekdays just preparing for those large weekend crowds; with a bowl of saimin going for 25 cents, it’s easy to see why.
As a young boy, Ross would watch his grandfather make noodles from a small Japanese tabletop machine. Ross found a vintage 1950s Japanese noodle-making machine like his grandfather’s, but larger, not long after opening. He and JoAnn crank out 400 to 500 portions a day with that machine – one portion for a small saimin and two portions for a large. It’s labor intensive but a labor of love. It takes them four to five hours a day, but they feel that it is keeping with tradition, and that makes their saimin extra special!
For Nakai Saimin, location was the key to success. For Shige’s, Wahiawä’s chilly and rainy nights during winter and early spring trigger an urge for a hot bowl of saimin. Whenever it rains in Wahiawä, which happens often during those months, you can expect a wait at Shige’s.
Their menu has an array of items besides saimin that you will find in saimin stands like barbecue beef sticks, hamburger steak and fried saimin. But a popular combo at Shige’s is a bowl of saimin and one of their handmade patty hamburgers. Ross said their customers would order the same thing time and again. When I walk into Shige’s their veteran wait staff always remember my usual order of one small won ton min with vegetables and a bbq burger; I am one of those creatures of habit.
Shige’s became popular with Japanese visitors after the lead singer of the famed Japanese boy band, Arashi, came to eat saimin. He came in after Arashi’s two sold-out concert performances at Ko Olina Resort in 2014. Shige’s has been a dining destination for 20 to 25 Japanese visitors a day ever since.
Saimin is a Hawai‘i original born during the plantation era with multicultural influences. Japan is known for ramen, so I asked Ross, what did Japanese visitors think of saimin? “They love it. They say it’s clean and light tasting. The ramen broths are richer,” Ross said.
That all went away with COVID-19. Instinctively, Ross’ first concern when the pandemic hit was Shige’s employees. They came first, so he asked who wanted to continue to work. Some employees declined to continue, so Ross cut a day and restaurant hours and now (as of this writing) does takeout only, which meant a big financial hit.
Ross mentioned that the state’s $500 Hawaii Restaurant Card funded by the federal CARES Act has helped. Ross said, “Every bit helps and we’re grateful that the state took action.” He mentioned that using those cards at a local mom-and-pop keeps those tax dollars in our local economy.
Ross and JoAnn said they owe it their loyal customers for their takeout orders for helping them to keep their doors open and their staff employed. Ross said takeout orders have been steady; he was surprised to see families bring their portable chairs to tailgate in the parking lot since Shige’s suspended dine-in service.
Ross and JoAnn credit big lunch orders from nearby workplaces — like Schofield Barracks, Wheeler Army Airfield, Spectrum and Leilehua High School — that have picked-up since the pandemic as a great help to their business. And JoAnn said these workplaces rotate among other Wahiawä mom-and-pop eateries to spread the kökua.
A customer who purchased 150 gift certificates in $10 denominations from Shige’s put it all into proper perspective. Ross said, “her only request was please don’t close.”
Most of us will remember 2020 as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. We hope that these mom-and-pop stories reveal lessons that might define this moment in history that has been compared to the Great Depression.
I was working on this story in the closing week of the tumultuous presidential election. When votes were being tallied, I was shocked and saddened by the scale of the divide and political polarization. But I found solace in these mom-and-pop stories, in that they show how Hawai‘i remains a shining example of humanity. It happened organically – people felt a need to support our beloved mom-and-pop shops which make our communities whole.
This is who we are in Hawai‘i – it is ingrained in our culture. When a mom-and-pop needs help, we show up.
These mom-and-pop brick and mortars have survived the big-box stores and the Great Recession. With our community’s unfailing support, they will survive this pandemic.
Dan Nakasone is a sansei Uchinanchu from Wahiawä. He is a marketing and advertising professional and was a producer/researcher for PBS’ award-winning food and culture series, “Family Ingredients,” which is based in Hawai‘i and hosted by Chef Ed Kenney.