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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 13, 2008

HASEGAWA STILL TOPS IN HANA
Hasegawa General Store still an icon

By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Hasegawa General Store moved "temporarily" to this building after a devastating fire 18 years ago. Next year, the store may move back to its old site, in a new building.

ADVERTISER LIBRARY PHOTO | April 2008

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Neil Hasegawa is the store's general manager, and his father, Harry Hasegawa, is president of the family business. In the plantation days, Hana had more than four times today's population of about 700.

Hasegawa General Store

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When Neil Hasegawa's grandfather and father ran the family's Hasegawa General Store on Maui, a few customers who didn't like banks left bags of cash in the store's safe and would ask to "withdraw" their money when needed. That's the kind of trust that was built in the tiny and isolated community of Hana.

Times have changed since then and an automated teller machine has replaced the safe. As in the past, however, Neil Hasegawa and his customers still rely on each other to get by in a town that has just one general store, one bank with limited hours, a single gas station, no traffic signals, and a population of around 700.

"Here in Hana, when you have a business, you've got a lot of responsibility with the community too. The decisions we make affect everybody," Hasegawa said. "It's not just as cut-and-dry as it would be on O'ahu. There are a lot of things that come into play."

Since Hasegawa's great-grandfather, Shoichi, and great-granduncle Saburo opened the store in 1910, Hana has changed little. If anything, the sleepy village made famous in Paul Weston's 1960s song has shrunk from a once bustling plantation town with several stores, inns and a population of more than 3,000 to what it is today.

But over the years, the Hasegawa family has had to make adjustments to keep up with the changing tastes of its customers and fluctuations in the economy. Not all of the changes were easy to implement, because Hana residents were so used to doing business the "old-fashioned" way.

For example, Neil Hasegawa said it took him awhile to explain why he would be charging a fee to cash checks and that he would replace the store's Bank of Hawaii ATM (Hana's first) with his own machine, which meant a fee to withdraw cash.

Hasegawa said it was not economically feasible to continue the free services at his store, but he also knew that Hana residents needed a way to do their banking. Bank of Hawaii is open just an hour and a half Mondays through Thursdays and three hours on Fridays.

"A store on the other side (of the island) would just set the policy and say, 'This is it. Take it or leave it,' " said the 45-year-old fourth-generation store operator. "But for us, you gotta prove to the customer that even if you were on the other side, this is what they would charge and this is what they would accept and won't accept. The responsibility to our customers is to make sure that they're not short-changed, they don't feel like they're getting ripped off."

It's this balance of sound business practices and serving the community's needs that has kept the store profitable over the nearly 100 years it's been in operation. Hasegawa's has faced some tough times, including the decline of sugar and the ups and downs in the economy, as well as a devastating fire that destroyed the original store 18 years ago tomorrow.

Neil Hasegawa had returned to Hana from California a year before the store burned down and has had to cope with the aftermath since. But the blaze may have been a blessing in disguise because it allowed Hasegawa to make needed changes once he moved into a "temporary" location at the old Hana movie theater.

In addition to the ATM, Hasegawa redesigned the checkout stands, increased the hardware department's inventory, became the UPS distributor in Hana, and added a HI-5 recycling redemption center. All this wouldn't have been possible at the older, smaller store, Hasegawa said.

"We had a clean canvas to start and say, 'OK, these were the problems in the old store, how can we design it to make it better?' " he said. "So that was a good starting point."

Hasegawa foresees an even better store once a new building is erected at the site of the original store. He said he hopes to break ground by the end of the year and complete construction within a year.

Two major additions to the new store will be a bakery and deli, as well as a laundromat, which Hasegawa discovered is much needed in isolated Hana.

"People were coming to me and saying, 'You know what? There are a lot of people who do their laundry on the other side of the island. They don't have a washer or dryer,' " Hasegawa said. "So on one day, they would take all of their clothes, do their laundry, do their shopping and come home."

Hasegawa believes that it's this isolation that also is helping his business, despite the slumping tourism industry and economy, as well as the high price of gas. On Monday, a gallon of regular at Hana's only gas station was $5.29.

He said many Hana residents are cutting back on the number of trips to Kahului, which is more than 50 miles away, and choosing to stay closer to home.

Hasegawa said he also believes that more Neighbor Island residents are visiting Maui and Hana because of the high cost of traveling to the Mainland and abroad.

Although the general store is a must-see for tourists, Hasegawa said his primary customers are local residents. He knows that he's pretty much the only store in town (Hana also has a mini-mart), and Hasegawa said he continues to listen to the needs of his customers to keep them satisfied.

For his efforts, the Hasegawa enterprise recently was named U.S. Small Business Administration's "family owned small business of the year" for Maui County.

"Our theory has always been that local is our bread and butter and the tourist is going to be our gravy," Hasegawa said. "We've seen it a thousand times. If we don't concentrate on locals, when the tourists dry up, then there will be no sales.

"The advantage of living here is you kind of know where the needs are, especially working in the industry where people are asking for the same thing or are asking why we don't have a certain thing," he added."

Reach Curtis Lum at culum@honoluluadvertiser.com.