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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Alicia's Market serves up food, comfort

By Robbie Dingeman

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Alicia’s Market store manager Leonard Kam shows off two popular poke dishes at the family’s Kalihi Kai store, wasabi masago poke and limu ahi poke.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Alicia's Market

Number of employees: 14, six of them Kam family members

How long in business: 61 years

Describe your business: Leonard Kam — "It's a local taste of Hawai'i. It's like a little Chinatown."

Work philosophy: Leonard Kam — "My philosophy is to make people happy. The days go by fast when you're having fun."

Business survival tip: Alicia Kam — "You have to get the right place. You have to do something people like."

Fun fact: Alicia's Market was named after co-founder Alicia Kam by her late husband, Raymond. Although she met her husband in China, where her parents arranged her marriage, her family had lived in Peru until she was five and that's how she got her not-so-traditional first name.

New thing? Leonard Kam — "My new creation is miso tako poke."

Find them: 267 Mokauea Street, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, 841-1921

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Leonard Kam hangs a cut of roast pork at Alicia’s Market in Kalihi Kai. The Kam family business began as a grocery store in 1949. It’s been at its current location since 1963.

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Walk into Alicia's Market in Kalihi Kai and two things are likely: a member of the Kam family will help you; and you'll walk out with some form of local comfort food (along with a plan to return soon).

The lunchtime line can get pretty long for people picking up everything from the popular combination ahi-poke-and-sirloin-beef plate lunches and a wide variety of poke, to roast pork and boiled peanuts.

Long a favorite of folks who work in or near Kalihi, Alicia's also picks up a word-of-mouth drive-by crowd of contractors, construction workers and others who pass through Kalihi while doing business nearby.

Contractor Greg Perrin lives in Kailua but stops in at least once a week, to and from his jobs "because of the food and the good friends."

When he goes to the counter to order, chances are the person helping him will already know his name and that he always orders the wasabi masago ahi poke and some roast meat.

The market is known for its ready-to-eat food, an ever-changing array of poke, roast pork, roast chicken, char siu, smoked tako, seasoned edamame, boiled peanuts as well as marinated meats to put on the grill, paper plates filled with fried rice and meat; sweet potatoes; plus lumpia, taro mochi, brownies and banana walnut bread, all prepared on the premises.

Check out the market's reputation online and you find more lovers than haters, even in the anonymous sniping arena that the Internet can engender. And (sorry long-time regulars) the market has picked up a foodie following.

Founder Alicia Kam — now 83 — still drives to the store daily, taking a turn at the register out front, preparing food in the back and talking story with some customers she's known for decades.

She and her husband bought out a nearby grocery store in 1949 and slowly reinvested and expanded by buying the neighboring properties three times and have been in the current spot since 1963.

Kam has seen a lot. She appreciates the customers and the business that helped her and her husband raise six children.

But the matriarch also matter-of-factly recalls raising the first three of her children in the warehouse of the store, washing diapers and hanging clothes to dry in the store when it was closed.

She remembers when the walls to the building were so thin that the neighbor's cigar smoke would waft through the cracks.

Alicia Kam met her husband, Raymond, in China when she was 20, married him there and moved to Hawai'i the next year.

She said the market seemed like a good business for them.

She spoke little English but adapted well to the business and learned to slice sashimi and make poke after seeing other stores sell such items.

She said she never imagined that she'd still be in business after more than 60 years, with her son, Leonard managing the store, working alongside his eldest sister, Cynthia Kam Mori; Leonard's wife, Gerri Kam; Cynthia's son, Dion Mori; and Leonard and Gerri's son, Christopher.

After her husband's death eight years ago, Alicia Kam kept working because that's what she's done all her life. "So far, so good," she says.

She still frowns at the memory of being robbed twice in the 1960s, once by armed men while three of her children were in the store, including Leonard, who was six.

Leonard said he contemplated joining the military to fly planes but his family persuaded him to stay with the family business.

Leonard Kam said the grocery store part of the operation has shrunk over the years. Some of the cans gathering dust on the shelf make that part of the store seem more like a historic exhibit, contrasting with the constant motion of the fresh food counters.

Kam said he feels fortunate. "We do have our slow times but we're still flourishing."

He added, "I think every year we're doing better."

The family market has closed on Sundays since 1971, Leonard Kam said. "The only Sunday we open is Super Bowl," he said. "Our customers demanded we open."

Kam said his parents showed him the value of hard work and family. "I just want to be the best I can be. Somehow everything comes out right. I just trudge along."