New Ownership for Friendly Market
After 63 years under the ownership of the Egusa family, one of Molokai’s largest stores is changing hands this week. As of Feb. 11, Friendly Market Center will continue operation under the leadership of another family of grocers — the Okimotos of Waianae, Oahu.
The change comes after careful consideration over the last few years, said the Egusas of their retirement and business sale. Having a long working relationship with the Okimoto family as fellow independent grocers, FMC co-owner Jeff Egusa said they feel good about the transition.
“We didn’t want a big mainland company or anything like that [to buy the store],” explained Jeff of their decision to approach the Okimotos with the possibility of purchase. “They are third generation super market people… They got the youth and the knowhow. They’re good people so we figure, [it’s] a winning combination for everybody.”
The three Okimoto brothers, Kris, Kit and Kyle, own two stores on Oahu — one in Waianae and one in Nanakuli.
“Our grandfather started the business in 1949,” explained Kit, adding the Nanakuli store came along in 1973. As the third generation running the stores, the brothers value family, their employees and a recognition that good things don’t need to be changed.
“We want to make sure the community knows we’re not here to change a bunch of things,” said Kit of FMC. “We think everything is just fine the way it is.”
The store’s current 42 employees will stay with the business under the new ownership, said Jeff’s wife, Crystal Egusa.
Kit said while their family wasn’t on a path to acquire another business, the Egusa’s endorsement meant a lot to them.
“…It was a very humbling experience to have the Egusas approach us and confide in us and trust us that we would be able to steward their company forward,” he said.
“We felt almost an obligation,” added Kyle. “Not to say someone else couldn’t come in and do it, but we feel like we really understand the role that this store plays on the island and our decisions would impact not just employees but really a whole community.”
The Okimoto family ties to Molokai were already established before business became involved. Kris said since the 80s, they have been coming to Molokai with their parents for vacations every year, and have developed close friends over the years. Their family owns a home on the east end.
“We’ve always felt like this was a second home for us,” said Kyle. “We knew going into this, we’re not coming in here to take over the island. We want to as much as possible perpetuate what the Egusas have been doing here, and we’re very sensitive to how everybody feels here, whether they’re employees or customers, and we want to keep doing things [the way they did].”
Leaving a Legacy
In 1953, Alex Egusa opened Friendly Market in the storefront most recently held by Molokai Fish & Dive.
“Friendly Market was started when my mom just gave birth to me, and my dad was unemployed,” recalled Jeff. “[Growing up], I just remember having to work in there and saying, ‘I’m never going to work in a grocery store.'”
Jeff’s aunt and uncle opened a small store behind a restaurant where Big Wind Kite Factory is now in Maunaloa. Back then, that was known as “Friendly Market 2,” while the store in Kaunakakai was called “Friendly Market 1.”
The family took orders and delivered groceries to homes between Kaunakakai and Maunaloa — often providing more than just drop-off service.
“They didn’t lock the door so we’d just put it inside,” laughed Jeff’s sister, Judy Egusa, recalling work-day deliveries to the homes of pineapple plantation employees. “Some places you’d put it in their refrigerators.”
Jeff met Crystal and decided to move home in 1980 to help his dad with the business and raise his family on Molokai.
In 1985, the Egusas renovated and expanded the store, which had moved to its current location. The existing warehouse was converted into storefront, and a new warehouse was constructed behind it, nearly doubling the store space.
“My favorite time [in the store’s history] was when we were renovating,” Jeff said. “It was so fun…. during the whole renovation and warehouse building, we only closed one day.”
“We did a lot of work at night,” added Crystal. “So in the morning when we opened the door… All the customers would come in to see what changed at night.”
Though it’s always been a family operation, Jeff said it’s time for a change.
“We don’t have anyone within the family now that wants to run it,” he said. “I don’t know if I would want them to run it. It’s tough and getting tougher.”
Despite the challenges, Jeff never looked back after joining the family business.
“I think moving [back] to Molokai was the best decision I ever made,” he said. “It’s always been long hours but I’ve enjoyed it immensely. But it’s a grind.”
The Egusas said they’ve been considering getting out of the “grind” for a few years, but are confident many things will stay the same.
“I think the fundamental foundation of Friendly Market [will remain] intact,” said Crystal. “It’s our workers.”
“A lot of our workers have been with us longer than our own kids,” added Jeff.
Patrick “PJ” Augustiro, Jr. can attest to that.
“They kinda raised me,” he said of the Egusas. Augustiro was 15 when he started working at FMC, and he said it’s been his first and only job for the past 27 years. He started as a bag boy, working part time while finishing high school. Now, he’s the meat department supervisor, and will serve as one of the store managers under the new ownership.
“Where I’m at today is because of them,” he said of the Egusas. “If you give it 100 percent every day, they’ll take care of you…. I tell them they’re the best bosses but they tell me, ‘How would you know, you’ve never had other bosses!'”
Francis Magdirila agreed, having also worked there since high school.
“They can’t be replaced, how they carry themselves [with] integrity,” he said. “They’re more than employers — they’re like family.”
Magdirila said the Egusas work every day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. “There’s always one of them here,” he said.
Twenty-six-year employee Hayleymay Greenleaf also spoke highly of the Egusa’s hard work.
“All my years I’ve been here, they’ve been here for opening [in the morning] and closing [at night],” she said. As one of the new store managers, she said she is having to learn the tasks the Egusas themselves performed as long as she’s worked at FMC.
Warehouse team leader Malia Reyes was filled with emotion as she talked about being an FMC employee the last 26 years.
“To me, they’re like my mom and dad,” she said. “They’ve taught me so much…. [Here you] come into a family, not just a job. They always took care of us.”
Looking to the Future
The family atmosphere is something the Okimotos said they want to continue.
“As a family business, we really want it to feel like a family atmosphere with the employees,” said Kyle. “We all have families ourselves and we understand there are struggles and sometimes it’s not easy balancing work and life.”
“The Egusas did well by their employees and they’re a great model honestly,” added Kit.
The brothers said they will be flying over to Molokai weekly, and taking care of the logistical side of the store.
“We want to make sure employees here can focus on customer service and operations,” said Kit. “Customer service is the foundation of this company and we don’t want to distract from that.”
The Okimotos said they plan to carry forward the Egusas’ focus on safety, customer service and communication.
“[The biggest challenge will be] filling the shoes and what the Egusas have done for so many decades, they set the standard and the bar high,” said Kris.
Several years ago, after a lengthy process, the Egusas obtained the county permit to building a new warehouse in the vacant lot behind the store. Though the building has not yet taken shape, the Okimotos said they want to move forward with those plans to give more storage space both for the store and to meet community needs.
“…If there’s a natural disaster and the barge shuts down, then we can actually have food and water stored on the island in the warehouse,” suggested Kris.
Though they hope to bring in some new products along the way, the brothers said with tight shelf space in the store, they will be carefully listening to customer feedback on any merchandise changes.
In addition to their desire to gain the trust of the Molokai community, they’re also sensitive to fellow island markets, stressing they’re “not here to put anyone out of business.”
The three said they want to get to know the community and plan to hold “meet and greet” events soon.
“We are here for the long haul,” said Kit. “We’re not a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ kind of company, kind of family. We intend to be here for a long time, as long as they’ll have us.”