95 Years of Misaki’s Grocery
This year, Misaki’s Grocery and Dry Goods celebrates 95 years, having served great grandparents, grandparents, parents and children of Molokai residents in a family-operated business that itself spans four generations.
“I’m the third generation, it’s really weird when you think about it, when we look at old pictures,” said General Manager Kevin Misaki. “It’s almost unbelievable… We found an old bill… 300 pounds of poi from old poi shop… it was $15. Considering how long we’ve been doing this, it’s kinda crazy how the prices have changed over the years.”
Prices may have changed, but many aspects of running a small community business have remained the same. From a tiny candy store in the present-day Molokai Fish and Dive building in downtown Kaunakakai to one of Molokai’s largest grocery stores, Misaki’s has been vital to island life and economy for nearly a century.
“We’ve probably served three or four generations,” said Kevin. “In the old days, we used to run [on credit accounts]. We still have accounts that are 60, 70 years old. From the parents, passed onto their kids…. It’s just so different doing business in a small community where people depend on you. Stores are basically a place that everyone goes to meet up… talk story session before they finish shopping, and I like that.”
The store got its start in 1922, when Uta Misaki, a seamstress, opened a 10-by-20-foot shop to supplement the family income. Along with sewing services, the store sold candy, ice cream and a few other items. Uta was soon joined in the business by her husband, Masataro – Kevin’s grandfather.
Irene Iwane, Uta and Masataro’s daughter, said she remembers her mother “cutting aloha shirts by the dozen,” in a 2012 Dispatch interview. The family — Iwane had five siblings, including Kevin’s father Mike — lived on Mango Lane behind the store.
Masataro came to Molokai in 1920 as a plantation worker, having worked on Kauai and Maui. Before long, the family’s store became invaluable to fellow residents, and the small corner shop grew — one addition at a time — to extend along the block to Mango Lane.
From candy, the store expanded to offer food items and canned goods, and everything from “clothing to fishing supplies to animal feed,” according to Kevin. The family’s Model T Ford was used to deliver rice and other goods to households all over the island.
“Dad’s car also used to be used as the hearse,” Iwane recalled in 2012. “I used to be so scared of riding in it, but we still used to jump on every weekend” to make deliveries with their father, she laughed.
In 1960, the Misaki’s store moved across the street to its present location, according to Kevin, in a building Masataro built. Kevin’s uncle Richard was the manager at the time, while Mike worked in the meat department as the butcher. Several years later, they built the warehouse that sits behind the store.
Meanwhile, Kevin graduated from University of Hawaii, and while he planned to specialize in ocean resource management, he switched to graduate with a degree in marketing after deciding to come home to help with the family business. By then, his dad had bought out Richard and became owner, while Kevin came on as manager.
The last decade has seen many store upgrades. In 2009, a new refrigeration system was installed to better store and display fresh produce. Electronic cash registers bring updated technology to Misaki’s cashiers and customers, and Kevin said another register upgrade is coming soon.
Recently, a new, 30-foot refrigeration unit was installed for milk and drinks, along with an updated freezer for pizza and ice cream. Kevin said next on the list is 20 more feet of freezers to replace the outdated ones in the back of the store.
“It’s expensive, so we try to do something new every year,” he said. Kevin added they’ve also been trying to get solar to offset their electric costs but are “kinda stuck” with the current limitations of Molokai’s electric grid accommodating more solar.
“What people don’t know about us is we’re actually the owners of the old Molokai electric site,” said Kevin, referring to the property occupied by Molokai Supply warehouse. The land is currently being tested for underground contaminants in a clean-up initiative by Maui Electric. “The original plan was to build over there but we found out it was contaminated 30 years ago. We’re still stuck with what’s going to happen there. It’s really held us back from a lot of things.”
Kevin said they’re waiting on the test results and next steps.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with that property,” he said. “I don’t want to drag this into my kids’ future.”
When it comes to his three kids, Kevin said even though the business has been in the family for generations, he doesn’t want it to be a burden for them.
“They haven’t really decided what they want to do,” he said, adding two live on Oahu, while one son works with him at Misaki’s. “One thing I tell my kids, they’re not forced into this. I never want them to think they have to come back, because this business… takes a lot of energy. They might want to do their own thing.”
He said a lot of Kaunakakai family businesses are in a period of transition, with some being continued by family, while others have been sold. In the meantime, Misaki’s will stay open, employing about 30 residents.
“As long as we can keep this thing going in the family, we’re going to try…You gotta put your heart and soul into it,” said Kevin. “But as long as I’m still here, I’m still going to be slugging away. It’s nice to serve a small community, it’s nice to know everybody. We want to thank the people, without our customers we wouldn’t be here… We appreciate all the people who have been patronizing us all these years, and their families.”