HE OWNS KTA
Family-owned KTA Superstores is committed to Hawaii products
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Food Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
HILO, Hawai'i — It's typical of Derek Kurisu that his first question to a reporter is not "This is going to be a positive story, isn't it?" or even "How can I help you?"
No, the KTA Super Stores executive vice president's first question, at 12:30 on a Saturday is, "Did you eat? Let's go eat. Where do you want to eat?"
So we go eat. His eyebrows rise when his guest chooses Hiro's plate- lunch place a few doors down from the Puainako KTA. They rise even higher when I choose dinuguan, Filipino-style blood stew. "Ey! Local girl, eh?" he teases.
A stroll down the sidewalk with Kurisu is an experience. He can't take two steps without being greeted, exchanging a word of banter here, a concerned inquiry about an ill relative there — and that doesn't even count employees, all of whom give him a quick smile or Island-style eye flash as we navigate the store aisles.
Like Target and Ross and Nordstrom and a favorite little one-of-a-kind boutique are to fashionistas, KTA — particularly the flagship Puainako store a few minutes from the airport on Highway 11 — is to food lovers, and particularly appreciators of Island food. Goat cheese and naan bread. Yes. A half-dozen kinds of poke? Yes. Japanese food from ame to -zuke, yes. Big Island-produced milk, eggs, cheese, bread, fruits, vegetables, snacks, condiments ... Yes, yes, yes.
Kurisu is the face of KTA, a third-generation family-owned company. But his ties to KTA's Taniguchi clan are not those of blood. "I started at KTA in high school as a bag boy," he recalls. "The family took me in like one of them, as they've done with so many of us."
A FRIENDLY COMMITMENT
It's significant that it is Kurisu to whom I am talking for a profile of one of the Islands' few remaining locally owned grocery chains, one of its most diverse and most committed to Island-grown and Island-made products. The grocery industry is notoriously media shy, and the Taniguchis are no different, but perhaps for different reasons. President Barry Taniguchi and his family members seem genuinely humble about their accomplishments, preferring to focus on doing business. And they empower their employees. Kurisu has worked 40 years to earn his position, but it's also clear he has been allowed to own it.
To Kurisu falls the task of introducing their company to potential "partners" (suppliers), customers and, in this case, reporters.
"We have one serious mission here: It's to fill the food and household needs of the people of this island," said Kurisu. "Our whole philosophy is 'We are friends.' " (The old Cecilio and Kapono hit comes irresistibly to mind as he expands on this theme.)
Theirs is a four-pronged commitment.
First, he said, take local needs seriously. For example, KTA maintains a larger warehouse than some might consider prudent, but it's because they remember how shipping strikes, tsunamis and hurricanes have disrupted supply in the past. "It costs us to hold inventory, but we believe it's important for people to have confidence in us, to know that rice and toilet paper is going to be there," Kurisu says, adding, "rice is like the king. If they know they can get rice, they're OK."
Second is a KTA trademark: working with local industries, buying local products, building local businesses. This is most visible in their Mountain Apple brand, applied to Big Island products only. Says fruit-and-vegetable grower Richard Ha of Hamakua Country Springs Farms, "Derek and the Taniguchis, they do it right. I've seen him bend over backwards to help local companies stay in business. Whatever they can do to keep local food in the stores, they do."
Kurisu is Mountain Apple's "sourcer" and "recruiter," traipsing through muddy fields, climbing aboard fishing boats, puttering around farms, talking food producers into selling their wares to KTA and, increasingly and worryingly, pleading with them to stay in business as economic forces squeeze out profits. Over the years, the Mountain Apple name has been applied to more than 240 items resulting from more than 80 partnerships. The line allows the suppliers to take advantage of economies of scale: "One product has a hard time standing alone, but when you have 10 to 20 products working together, you can often find success," he argues.
Kurisu's job even extends to promoting products to other buyers, even competitors. "A lot of the time, we do things outside the walls of this company because it makes sense for the future," he said.
AN UNCANNY VISION
Mountain Apple harkens back to the philosophy of the second-generation KTA head, the late Tony Taniguchi. Sugar workers were the store's customer base, but more than a generation ago, Taniguchi was warning that the stores had to be ready for what might happen after sugar. "We should create products, we should be helping local business," warned Taniguchi, who died an untimely death at age 59 in 1989. He registered the Mountain Apple trademark 15 years before it was launched in 1992 with Mountain Apple milk. "I always wonder how Tony had the insight to know that sugar would go before anyone else could even imagine it," said Kurisu.
"Our philosophy is still the old plantation philosophy of working together on a handshake, trusting each other, what I say I'll do, I do," Kurisu said.
Another tenet: Turn waste into value. They'll take B-grade beef cuts that don't sell well and make them into successful value-added products, such as prepared frozen laulau, for example.
Kurisu patently loves every minute of it. Watch him walk around the store, holding up different products as he tells you their stories, heaping praise on the farmers, fishing boats, ranchers, bakers, cheesemakers and other food producers he's come to know. He talks about steady small partners — mochi maker Gladys Harada; the Sakamoto family, who grow bean sprouts. He tells how, when he started, perhaps 15 percent of the produce they sold was locally grown. Now it's 95 percent.
"That kine stuff makes me feel real good," he says.
Walking back to the lunchroom, he can barely contain himself as he talks about another project: PAVA, a papaya-guava juice sweetened with Maui brown sugar that Mountain Apple developed with the aid of students at the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources. It goes back to his philosophy of making profit from waste. B-grade papayas are being fed to livestock or dumped. Guava orchards have been abandoned, not even worth the cost of picking.
The name came as an epiphany when he was driving the long, curvy, mind-numbing Saddle Road, gazing over acres and miles of lava while his mind played with ideas. "It's not 'awa, it's not java, it's not java, it's PAVA, the drink of the Islands," he declares, "and every single hotel or restaurant should be serving it instead of orange juice."
And there's still some stockboy left in him. As he talks, he unconsciously straightens items on shelves, notices pukas and pulls packages forward to fill them.
And what does he do in his spare time? He's got a public-access-channel TV show aimed at noncooks, particularly seniors and young people. "My whole focus is to teach every single man to cook. I get really sad when I see a customer, and the wife dies, and he comes in and he doesn't know how to feed himself, they can't even boil saimin. I just want to help them," he said. It's the KTA way.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at email@example.com.