By J.K. YAMAMOTO
RAFU STAFF WRITER
King’s Hawaiian, which celebrated its 60th anniversary this year, has grown from a small bakery in Hilo to a corporation whose products can be found in supermarkets across the country.
King’s makes both the top-selling Hawaiian sweet bread and branded dinner rolls in the U.S., and its original bread and roll recipes received the Best Taste Award from the American Culinary Institute in 2003 and 2004. On top of that, the company received the Environmental and Economic Leadership Award from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year for its Green Vision sustainability program.
Robert Taira, one of 11 children of an immigrant couple from Okinawa, started the business at the age of 26 with $382 borrowed from his father. After becoming a success on the Big Island, he opened a bakery and coffee shop on King Street in Honolulu in 1963, hence the company’s name.
Success on Oahu in turn led to the expansion of the business to the mainland. A 30,000-square-foot bakery was built on Western Avenue in Torrance in 1977, and a restaurant was opened on Sepulveda Boulevard in Torrance in 1988. The whole family – Taira’s wife, five children, and several grandchildren – was involved. A cafe/bakery, The Local Place, followed in 2002 in Gardena.
Taira passed away in 2003, and his son Mark now carries on the family legacy as president and CEO. In a recent interview at the 150,000-square-foot baking facility on Harbor Gateway in Torrance, which opened in 2005, he recalled growing up as a part of King’s Hawaiian:
“I’ve always worked in the business, ever since I was a small kid. That was back in Honolulu. As in every family business, you start at the bottom and you just learn every part of all the different positions in the business, doing the mixing, the baking, production, packaging. We also had a restaurant, so we worked there as well … just working all aspects of the business. That’s why it was very interesting. You didn’t get stuck to just one job; you got to do all these different jobs.”
This hands-on experience with every phase of production has been helpful to Taira as he runs the company.
“Everyone’s still involved in the business one way or another,” he said of his family. “My older sister is in Hawaii. She maintains some of our business back there. My older brother is our VP of engineering, so he takes care of all the equipment for the facilities here. My younger brother and sister, they both work at the restaurant. My kids are working in the office here … The grandkids of my parents, not all but most of them, they’re either working here or in the restaurant.”
One of those grandkids is Lani Nishiyama, who was crowned 2010 Nisei Week Queen last August. She talked about her love of food and cooking in her speech. Taira said the family is very proud of her.
One Loaf of Bread
The company, which is now known for a wide variety of foods – from sliders to s’mores, or from Paradise Cake to Porky Boy Sandwiches – began with a single product, Taira noted. “That was a challenge for my father when he first started the business. It was just one loaf of bread. Back in those days, it was unheard of for a bakery to sell just one product. They always had several breads, several rolls, pies, cakes. It was like Van de Kamp’s back in those days, they had a whole line of bakery goods. And here my father was just trying to sell one item and to build a wholesale factory just to make that item. It was really very difficult for him to get any kind of financial backing …
“In addition, in those days all bakery manufacturers had their own delivery system … and my father wasn’t going to distribute his product that way. He was going to take it to the supermarkets themselves and have them distribute it to the individual stores. So it was really, at that time, a unique way of distributing and selling the bread, but he overcame all those obstacles to make the business a success.”
His father’s recipe, Taira explained, was based on sweetbread made by Portuguese families in Hawaii. “Back in those days, that bread was only good for one day and the next day it would turn hard like a rock. His goal was to make that same type of bread but to give it some shelf life so that it would last two, three weeks, and that’s what he did. He went to baking school, so he had all the technical skills in order to develop and modify recipes.”
The second product line for the wholesale business was dinner rolls, which became just as popular as the sweetbread. Today, both original and honey wheat versions of the bread and rolls are available, along with savory butter rolls. New additions have included sliced bread and Snacker Rolls.
Moving to the Mainland
Regarding his father’s decision to move the business out of Hawaii, Taira said, “He always knew that the population in Hawaii was too small for the business to grow to a significant level. There just wasn’t enough people there … In looking for a location and a place to build the first (mainland) factory, he did look all over Los Angeles.
“He settled in this Torrance-Gardena area for two reasons. One, the proximity to the airport and the port and all the different freeways from here. It was a good place to have a factory and then distribute your products throughout the L.A. area. Second of all, being from Hawaii, it was nice to be in an area where there was a lot of Hawaii people and Japanese Americans.”
After 11 years spent gaining a foothold in the mainland market, the Torrance restaurant was the next step, Taira said. “It was a wholesale business, and we didn’t have any interaction with the public. It was always making a product and selling it to the supermarkets throughout the country. Our base and our roots was really the retail bakery and restaurant, and we all sort of missed that interaction with the community.”
The restaurants have been a big hit, often with long lines waiting to get in. Asked if there are plans for more, Taira answered, “We’re looking at it, (but) right now we’re focusing most of our efforts on building this business here as a wholesale bakery.”
Other restaurants that use King’s Hawaiian products include the Disneyland Resort and Ruby’s Diner.
A Supermarket Staple
Although King’s Hawaiian baked goods can be found nationwide, the family didn’t have to travel to every state to sell the product, Taira said. “One of the first ways we got exposure was going to these supermarket conventions that they would have. That gave us great exposure to all the buyers and all the major supermarkets throughout the country. Back then and today, we have a broker network that we use throughout the country to handle most of our sales calls.”
He added, “It’s a product that sells well everywhere … The big metropolitan areas are where we have our (biggest) business — Chicago, the Southeast, that whole Florida area … Texas, and then up in the East Coast, the Northeast. I would say our business is pretty well accepted and does well everywhere.”
Hawaiian cuisine in general is more popular on the mainland than it was 20 or 30 years ago, particularly in Southern California, Taira observed. “Today, there’s a huge population here from Hawaii. It’s really nice because they all came up and opened businesses … Being from Hawaii, having Hawaii businesses here on the mainland is very nice. There’s now all these different Hawaiian restaurants opening up, like L&L (Hawaiian Barbecue) and all of these fast food restaurants. The food has really got a lot of exposure here on the mainland. It’s helped us in our business as well, very positive.”
The company is now reaching even more people through its website, kingshawaiian.com, which includes recipes, videos and special offers. It is not set up to take online orders, but there is a search function for stores that sell King’s Hawaiian products. Fans can also get updates through Facebook and Twitter.
Will the company expand to other countries? “One day we do have plans to go international,” Taira said. “Right now we’re just trying to tackle the United States. It’s so big and the population on the East Coast is much larger than the West Coast. That’s where we’re really trying to build our business right now out there.”
Whatever the company does next, the family will be guided by the mission laid out by its founder. As Mark Taira said in announcing the anniversary celebration, “Six decades ago, my father began the tradition of producing irresistibly delicious, original recipe products made with genuine aloha spirit, and we are fortunate to be able to continue that mission today.”