“Guess what I got?” Shawn Fujisawa boomed as he burst through the grocery store’s side door onto the loading dock. Employees, heaving boxes onto dolly carts, stopped for a moment as the manager spoke.

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“Mustard cabbage!”

Megan Nakashima was delighted. The 37-year-old is the president of Pukalani Superette, a small-town grocery store that her family opened almost seven decades earlier. The store has long been known for its shelves full of fresh, local produce, but mustard cabbage has been especially difficult to stock lately — along with almost everything else it seems, amid supply chain woes, sky-high shipping prices, drought and the dire overpopulation of deer on Maui that can destroy months of a farmer’s hard work in a single night.

An employee unloads a shipment of bread at Pukalani Superette. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

A few yards away, a longtime employee unloaded a shipment of bread and eggs. There were fewer than normal because it’s been slower since Thanksgiving. That morning, the store itself was relatively quiet too, but it was expected to get busier with the lunch rush.

To prepare, workers in the kitchen shovel chow fun, chicken and fried rice into bento boxes, hundreds of which they sell each day. It’s all part of the draw to keep their loyal customers coming back; they could just as easily drive to Foodland, where there are more aisles and sometimes cheaper prices, less than a mile down the road.

“We’re just winning on personality, right?” Nakashima said. “Nostalgia and personality.”

Everyone knows the big green building on the corner of Makawao Avenue and Old Haleakala Highway, home to one of Maui’s rare mom and pop businesses that’s still run by the same family that founded it. Pukalani Superette’s humble beginnings trace back nearly a century, when Nakashima’s great-grandparents, who moved from Japan to work on the plantations, opened a store in Wailuku.

When that business burned down in 1927, they built the Tanizaki Store in Pukalani, in what was then a sleepy small town in the middle of ranch land and farms. The larger store, called Pukalani Superette, was finished in 1955.

Pukalani Superette celebrates its 67th anniversary this month. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

It turns 67 this month. The small business has survived a lot over the decades, but the challenges over the last few years have been especially tough. First, there was the pandemic, its shutdowns, staffing shortages and supply chain woes. Then prices skyrocketed this year. Gas prices went up and so did shipping costs, causing everything else — veggies, canned goods, eggs, milk, bread, cooking oil, pet food — to rise, too.

“With the 8% to 9% inflation, everything is expensive,” said Debasis Bhattacharya, a business professor at the University of Hawaii Maui College.

When prices go up that high, businesses have no other choice but to pass them on to customers, Bhattacharya said. It’s a problem for every business today, but it can be even more difficult for small establishments like Pukalani Superette.

They don’t have the same leverage as large chains like Walmart or Foodland to negotiate lower prices or maintain pallets worth of back-up supplies in case a shipment comes late.

Local produce at Pukalani Superette. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

But there’s also a huge upside of being small and family-run. Pukalani Superette has a loyal customer base that it’s nurtured over decades; Bhattacharya said he’s been one of those customers.

Many Maui residents recognize that it’s worth paying a little more for a bag of rice or loaf of bread to keep places like this alive.

“It’s exactly the same as 20 years ago, or 25 years ago, when I was a tourist here on Maui,” Bhattacharya said. “Not much has changed … that’s the charm of mom and pop businesses.”

Still, the people who’ve been shopping — and working — at Pukalani Superette long enough know there are fewer places like this left on Maui. Although the local chamber of commerce doesn’t track how many businesses have closed in recent years, there are a couple recent losses that are top of mind for many residents. Just this year, the Tamashiro Tofu factory shut down, the last producer of its kind on Maui. Then there was the recent announcement about Kitch’n Cook’d Maui Potato Chips, another family-run business closing its doors after more than six decades in operation.

Bento boxes at Pukalani Superette. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Nakashima grew up working in Pukalani Superette with her parents, but after she graduated high school, she thought she wanted to become a scientist. She studied at Columbia University then earned a master’s in molecular biology at the University of Hawaii. But after a decade or so, she came back home to Maui. Returning to the store was second nature.

In 2020, she took over as the store’s president. She credits the business’s existence today to the decisions made by those who came before her. One of the pivotal ones: Her great-grandparents purchased the land the store sits on today. It’s been in Nakashima’s family so long that the original deeds are in Hawaiian.

Generations later, it’s allowed Nakashima to take risks. Earlier this year, for example, she decided to raise the store’s minimum pay to around $18 an hour after Hawaii lawmakers passed a bill that would eventually raise the state minimum to that level in 2028. For Nakashima, the decision was simple; her business was inevitably going to feel the financial effects in the future, and her employees had kept the store going through an incredibly challenging last couple years. Why hold off?

A clerk rings up customers at Pukalani Superette. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

She’s tried to come up with other ways to ensure the store succeeds through another generation, including selling Superette swag, like hats and t-shirts. She also stocks more specialty and health foods like organic Molokai honey, Maui-grown kale and cassava flour for people trying to avoid wheat. Pukalani Superette used to bring in pallets worth of Vienna sausage and spam on a regular basis, but demand has dropped over the years. Many of the customers, who’ve aged along with the store itself, have been told by their doctors to watch what they eat.

Nakashima has also ramped up the store’s presence on social media. It’s been a blessing and a curse. She’s able to reach more people that way, but she’s also been accused of price gouging. Others complain the prices aren’t as cheap as Foodland.

Nakashima wishes customers knew there’s a simple formula used to decide prices. Pukalani Superette purchases goods from distributors or directly from farmers, then adds a percentage. It’s the same markup across the entire store. Occasionally, if they know a sudden price hike is temporary, they’ll take the hit and not adjust prices. But when things have risen as much as they have over the last year, keeping up is the only way to keep the lights on and employees paid.

Pukalani Superette is known to many as “Puk Sup.” Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

For decades, the store has also served as a stepping stone for smaller local farmers and food producers to get their products into stores before moving up to bigger chains. Nakashima tries to make sure that 60% to 75% of the store’s produce comes from farmers in Hawaii. In an ideal world, Nakashima said, they’d stock 100% local produce, but sometimes Maui’s growers lose crops to deer, storms and drought, and the store has to rely on more expensive mainland imports.

In the past, a case of 25 to 35 heads of lettuce might cost around $50. Now, it’s up to around $185 —  so pricey that staff ended up putting signs out warning customers.

“The mainland lettuce,” Nakashima said, “it kills me every time.”

Sometimes there are shortages of Maui-grown produce when farmers lose crops to deer. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

But it’s not just lettuce.

“Cereal is so terrible. How can we sell a box of cereal for $9?” said Irene Aguilar, who oversees the shipment of dry goods like rice, pet food and condiments for the store.

“Maybe we have to take a smaller margin,” she continued. “But then, how are we going to survive?”

These days, Aguilar doesn’t want to think about it. Over her lifetime, she’s seen lots of Maui businesses come and go. She turns 80 next year and has been working at Pukalani Superette since 1970. When she started working there as a young mother, she remembers how, when she’d drive down to Kahului at night, the mountain behind her was so dark. Now it’s covered in lights from new businesses, schools and homes with thousands of more people.

Irene Aguilar has worked at Pukalani Superette since 1970. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Next year will mark her 53rd anniversary at the grocery store. Aguilar remembers some of the customers from when they were babies in strollers. She watched them grow up, get married and bring in children of their own.

Although her memory isn’t as clear as it once was, she said she doesn’t ever remember it being this hard or expensive to keep the shelves stocked. The shipments that always used to arrive on Tuesdays are often late; sometimes they don’t come until Saturday. Heading into the holiday season, it’s been hard to get basic things that families need for festivities, like chocolate chips.

Right now, however, there is one thing the store has in abundance: mayonnaise. Aguilar has always ordered shipments of dry goods, but somehow she accidentally ordered about eight shippers of mayonnaise — roughly the equivalent of four pallets worth — instead of eight cases. She was shocked when the delivery of pallets arrived the other day, more mayonnaise than ever before.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with the mayonnaise,” Aguilar told Nakashima. “I’m waiting for the answer.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Nakashima said. “All the employees are getting a jar of mayonnaise for Christmas!”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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