KOLOA, Kauai — Ralph Hornstine sauntered into Kukuiula Market as if it were his living room. He strolled up to its manager and flung an arm around her shoulder.
Caught between a rack of local-style bentos and a wall of liquor, the customer and the manager embraced, exchanging warm greetings like family members.
In fact, Hornstine and manager Terry Kuribayashi see each other nearly every day. It’s been that way since 1998, when Kuribayashi began working at the market after marrying into the family that owns it.
Now she runs the place. She’s in charge of accounting, billing, ordering, cooking and stocking shelves. She washes dishes and works the cash register. Over the years, she’s transformed the market from a mere grocery store into a community gathering place.
“I do my grocery shopping here and if I need a little therapy I’ll just walk through and catch the love,” said Hornstine, who has been shopping at Kukuiula Market for 30 years.
The market has the bleak distinction of being Kauai’s last surviving family-owned mom and pop. It’s a holdover from the generation of stores that sprouted across Hawaii starting in the late 1800s when immigrant families decided to trade in their plantation jobs for something more lucrative.
By the early 1900s, nearly every major town and plantation camp in Hawaii had a mom and pop. Most were named after the family that owned it.
Each store had a niche. Kauai’s Kojima Store, for example, specialized in gravestones and short ribs. But like the Kuramoto, Yasuda, Kubota and Yoneji stores before it, the Kojima Store in Kapaa shut down in 2014 after 75 years in business.
The death knell for these old-school family businesses has been growing economic pressures spurred by an influx of corporate supermarkets.
At a time when communities in Hawaii and across the nation are becoming increasingly pulled apart, the family neighborhood store is a place where people still come together to socialize, catch up on gossip and offer each other support. More than food marts, they are hangouts, cultural hubs and safeguards against chain store-driven homogenization.
At Kukuiula Market, you won’t find the best variety nor the lowest food prices in town. But the cashiers know customers by name. A few longtime regulars still shop on credit accounts. If a customer strolls in on foot and buys more groceries than he can carry, Auntie Terry is known to offer him a ride home in her car.
You’d be hard pressed to find that kind of service at Safeway or Costco.
“I don’t want to change just because times have changed,” said the 59-year-old Kuribayashi. “And I’m not trying to live how it was. It’s just I don’t want to lose those morals.
“Now everybody’s on their phone and nobody knows how to talk to people. I’m not living in the past but I just kind of want this to be a place that’s refreshing to everybody.”
The half-century-old market is the last of a dying breed. A loyal customer base is helping to keep its doors open — at least for now.
“Auntie Terry, there’s so much love with her — and it’s tough love,” said Hornstine, who wears a white beard and mustache in the style of Walt Whitman.
“There’s a guy, and he’s battling substance abuse off and on, and when he gets off track Auntie Terry and the workers, they tune him up if he needs it. They tune him up with tough love. Really, it’s amazing how they impact the neighborhood.”
Hornstine views Koloa’s last mom and pop as a cultural institution, as much as a spot to pick up a six-pack and a couple of sushi rolls.
“I’ll be stumbling in here in my 80s,” he said, regardless of whether his pantry is full.
There’s charm in the market’s quirks.
Laundry detergent and cat food share a shelf. Lemon-flavored La Croix is found next to the gluten-free fusilli. In a drink cooler left unplugged to save money on the electric bill, there’s a display of bracelets and T-shirts.
Handwritten notes posted around the store remind the lunchtime crowd not to touch the wire racks in the food warmer (they’re hot!) and instruct shoppers not to shake the kombucha (it will explode).
Canned cherries and Hamburger Helper lasagna are among the items that customers can take home free of charge. “One per person per day, MAHALO!,” a handwritten notecard informs.
Established in 1962, Kukuiula Market got its start when Hajime Kuribayashi won approval from the Koloa sugar plantation boss to sell knives and trousers to camp laborers. His enterprise gradually evolved into a grocery business and, a decade later, he and his wife Jane purchased the property where the market continues to operate.
Following the advice of a good friend, Hajime Kuribayashi rented out some of the building’s retail space to boost his revenue. Today the building hosts a dive shop, an adventure tour company, a surf school, a Mexican burrito joint and a Jiu Jitsu gym. All of these businesses pay rent, which helps prop up the market’s bottom line.
Hajime Kuribayashi’s three children own the market now. One of them is Paul Kuribayashi, Terry’s husband.
Uncle Paul, as everybody calls him, cuts the meat and prices the liquor. Auntie Terry handles the rest. She works seven days a week, usually clocking 17 or 18 hours per shift.
“I used to sleep here,” she said. “I used to stay up until three or four in the morning because there’s so many things for me to do. Then I would get up at 5 and do my bentos.”
Now she forces herself to go home at the more “decent hour” of 11:30 p.m.
Kuribayashi’s devotion to the market is driven by a desire to do right by her deceased father-in-law who built the place from scratch. Beyond that, she says she genuinely loves dreaming up new ways to raise revenue amid such cut-throat competition from big box stores that have already put the island’s other family-owned grocers out of business.
More competition is on the way: ABC Stores has plans to build a grocery store on an empty plot of land directly behind Kukuiula Market.
“Sometimes I get mad or sad, but mostly I don’t worry about them,” Kuribayashi said. “I focus on what we’re doing here and I keep trying to do things better.”
Last year, ABC Stores bought Sueoka Store, Kauai’s second-to-last family-owned market. The Sueoka family had owned and operated the market for 100 years.
The transaction came on the heels of the Ishihara family’s decision in 2018 to sell their 85-year-old market in Waimea to the Sullivan family that operates the Foodland supermarket chain.
The Sueoka and Ishihara stores are still operating under these new ownerships. The stores have kept their names, as well as many of the same employees and products.
But some longtime customers say the shopping experience has been impeded by an air of corporate ownership. That “impersonal” vibe is something Kuribayashi said she’s fighting against.
“I told (my husband’s) family that we should never sell this place because if you sell, you’re dead,” she said. “Once you sell land, it’s over. I don’t care how much millions of dollars you get, because we are in a prime space and I know that. We’re not going to sell it for generations.”
“It’s not about the money,” she added.
Over the years, Kukuiula Market has shrunk its grocery selection to make way for more prepared foods, such as homemade guacamole, vegan avocado key lime pie, pastele and gandule rice, spaghetti and chia seed pudding.
The payoff is visible. On a recent weekday, construction workers were grinding fresh-made ceviche on picnic tables in the market’s indoor seating area. Friends talked story over acai bowls and yogurt parfaits. A line formed at the juice and smoothie bar when Jiu Jitsu class let out.
By contrast, there were few people shopping the market’s narrow aisles.
At the front of the store, Kuribayashi helped one of the former neighborhood kids start up a successful sushi business. Matthew Oliver’s Makai Sushi is now a sought-after lunch counter. His brother operates Waikomo Shave Ice in the parking lot. Both of them pay a modest rent and have gradually come to earn a steady, respectable income.
Paintings by a young local artist of Kauai’s mountains and beaches hang around the store. The market does not take a cut of the profits.
These small businesses within the market drive foot traffic. But that’s not the only reason the Kuribayashis try to help out these fledgling businesses. They seek out ambitious, Kauai-bred entrepreneurs to nurture, and they give them a big break on the rent, because they want to make sure the people who grew up in the neighborhood don’t get priced out of living there.
The agreement is this: the store’s owners charge very little rent but when the enterprise becomes lucrative, they expect the business operator to start paying more rent.
“Some of them do it on their own,” Kuribayashi said. “Some of them, I have to get on them about it.”
Outside the market’s back door, a pair of young women recently transformed a dry storage room into Ho‘olokahi, a boutique of Kauai-made products.
Co-owners Teal Basquez and Kamalani Lovell make jewelry and natural skincare products. Their entrepreneurial pals help fill out the rest of the display shelves with baby clothes, artwork and stationary.
Without capital or prior experience, they know they’d have a slim chance of building a successful business from scratch while forking over top dollar for rent at a corporate-owned shopping center.
“They just support us, Auntie Terry and Uncle Paul, to just be able to sustain and live on Kauai while growing a business that’s in line with our values,” Basquez said. “And so that’s why nobody who lives here can really do it. Not unless you have somebody supporting you like them.”
The girls grew up shopping at Kukuiula Market. As a kid, Lovell used to help stock shelves. Basquez always stopped in to grab musubis on her way to the beach.
Now that they’ve developed business ambitions, Kuribayashi has taken them under her wing.
Basquez and Lovell have seen countless retail deaths spurred on by corporate growth and rising rents. They’ve become conscious shoppers who consider whom their spent dollars benefit.
But in many cases their choice to support a local family or a corporation has been eliminated.
“Sueoka’s is not Sueoka’s anymore. Ishihara’s is not Ishihara’s anymore,” said Basquez, who is 26. “It’s just touristy. And they don’t have the same food. They used to have bentos in Sueoka’s and musubis.”
She pauses, trying to put her finger on what exactly changed when Sueoka Store lost its family ownership.
“The older couple that owned it, they used to live upstairs and so they used to always be around the store,” Basquez said. “And now you don’t see them there.
“But I don’t really go in there, honestly, anymore.”
A story that takes fives minutes to read often takes days to report.
Quality journalism takes time and resources to produce, but with support from readers like you, Civil Beat can investigate issues and publish stories that are otherwise difficult to fund.
Become a donor and help support Civil Beat’s next investigation.