60 years of Family Service
Friendly Market celebrates 60th anniversary
Jeff Egusa swore he would never come back to Molokai to work in his family’s grocery business. But more than 30 years later, he calls the decision to continue the legacy of Friendly Market Center the best decision of his life.
It all began when his dad, Alex Egusa, was fired from his job working in the grocery business operated by the Y.K. Yuen family, which owned four stores on Molokai in the early 1950s. Jeff said a group of fellow employees quit when his dad was let go after a difference of opinion, and shortly afterward, they decided to open their own store together in 1953. That was 60 years ago when Friendly Market first opened in the storefront most recently held by Molokai Fish & Dive. The Yuen family still operated one of its stores across the street — in today’s FMC location — but when they closed, Alex and his wife moved their store into that space.
Meanwhile, Jeff’s aunt and uncle opened a small store behind a restaurant where Big Wind Kite Factory is now in Maunaloa, and later moved across the street to the present-day Maunaloa General Store. Back then, that was known as “Friendly Market 2,” while the store in Kaunakakai was called “Friendly Market 1.”
“My aunt used to load up her station wagon every morning with fresh produce,” recalled Jeff. She’d pack it up from FMC 1 and drive up to Maunaloa. Twice a week, they’d load up the truck with dry goods to supply the second store.
Jeff and his sister Judy remember growing up in the Kaunakakai store.
“We had to start working here when we were 15 — we made $1.25 an hour!” laughed Judy.
For Jeff, there was nothing fun about it.
“I remember working as a kid stocking shelves, and I looked up at my dad and thought, ‘I never, ever want to work in this business,’” said Jeff. “Things changed when I met my wife.”
A Family Endeavor
After Jeff earned a degree in Sociology and met his future wife, Crystal, he started to think about settling down and considered a career in physical therapy. To gain experience in the field, he planned to volunteer as a physical therapy assistant, but instead was offered a paid position. After seeing how the operation was run as a business rather than a service to patients, he grew frustrated, however.
“I thought, ‘If I’m working in a business, I should be working for my dad,’” remembered Jeff. So he took a job at Longs Drugs to learn business and accounting to better understand how to help run the family store.
He moved home in 1980, calling it “the best decision of my life.”
And while his dad never let on how much he wanted his son to join the family business, Jeff recalled the moment he learned just how much that decision meant to his dad. Jeff’s son won a league championship in cross country running — a day Jeff called the best day of his life. Later, during a family dinner, Jeff reminded his dad of that proud day.
“My dad said, ‘You know what was the best day of my life? The day you moved home.’”
‘The store was his life’
As Jeff was gaining experience working on Oahu, Judy worked as an elementary school teacher. But when their uncle passed away, she took a leave of absence to help run the Maunaloa store. She never returned to her school position. When the family sold FMC 2 in 1986, Judy began working at the Kaunakakai store.
The store used to be half its current size. In 1985, the family decided to renovate and expand its capacity and services. The existing warehouse was converted into storefront, and a new warehouse was constructed behind it. During the whole renovation, which took three to four months, the store was closed only one day, said Jeff.
“My girlfriend used to say, ‘let’s go every day to see the changes!’” said Judy, adding that customers were very supportive of the renovation process.
For Alex Egusa, Friendly Market was more than just a business.
“The store was his life,” said Judy of their dad. When the family took out a loan for the renovation, they used their own home as collateral.
“If the renovation failed, they would have lost their house,” said Jeff. “I always felt so much pressure not to fail.”
That commitment to the business is carried over in the family’s support of their employees. Since 1985, the store has shared profit with all those who work there.
“I cannot in my right conscience have someone work for me their whole life and get nothing but social security and a thank you,” said Jeff.
Now, he said Friendly Market’s 40 employees have been able to make a more stable future for themselves and their families.
“I’m proud that they’re able to save more money than they probably would have otherwise,” he said.
Adapting to Today’s Market
Despite what Crystal calls the myth that Molokai prices are higher than off-island stores, she said smart shopping from suppliers enables FMC to pass on the deals to their customers.
“People think prices are so high on Molokai, but many people don’t realize how much cheaper prices are here grocery-wise,” said Crystal.
She said she was surprised when an employee returned from Foodland on Oahu and showed her photos he took of prices as much as $6 higher than FMC’s. By shopping for wholesale bargains for staples like cooking oil, flour, sugar and other products, Crystal said she’s able to keep costs low for local residents. She is starting to book deals for Christmas this week, for example.
But keeping up in the market isn’t easy. When Wal-Mart began offering free food shipping to your door, Crystal said that hurt a lot of local businesses.
“I do understand how hard it is to raise a family [financially],” said Crystal. “I don’t blame them at all, we’re just trying to see where we fit it. I feel bad some people have to go out of business.”
“We try to keep being able to provide the variety of products we usually offer but that’s a struggle,” she said.
Crystal said she’s also noticed a trend toward healthier eating, with mainstream food suppliers now offering natural products.
“Cheap foods can be really bad for you,” she said. “Healthy foods are getting popular also because they’re becoming more affordable.”
Meanwhile, Crystal said by adapting to the market and working hard to look for deals, the store can continue to offer a variety of products at reasonable costs.
“A business can succeed if you give your customers a good service at a fair price,” said Jeff.