By Pamela Varma
When Mankichi Sueoka immigrated to Kaua‘i from Japan in the early 1900s, his dream was to provide a good life for his wife and children. But he soon learned that he could barely support his family on his sugar plantation wages.
So in 1918, with a loan from friends, he opened Sueoka Store.
One hundred years later, Sueoka Store is still providing groceries and sundry items for Kaua‘i’s South Shore. The store is operated by Mankichi’s grandchildren, cousins Rod Sueoka and Wendy Kawaguchi, with a helping hand from Rod’s mother, Betty Miyazaki, 93.
“It’s a pretty incredible thing that we have been able to survive 100 years,” Wendy says. “Three generations of family have kept this store alive.”
Located in the heart of Kōloa town, Sueoka Store is simultaneously an experience in modern grocery shopping, and a flashback to small town America, to a time when you knew the owners of local businesses, and they knew you. Thriving in spite of competition from large Mainland-based supermarkets on the island, Sueoka Store is frequented by residents and visitors, who find the freshest of Kaua‘i-grown produce, meat and everything else they need to eat well.
Wendy, Rod and Betty epitomize the families of Kaua‘i who have roots in the sugar plantation era: humble and hard-working. Most days you can find all three working from the tiny second floor office that overlooks the cash registers at the front of the bustling store. But don’t be surprised if you see Rod or Wendy bagging groceries, or Betty giving directions to a customer who seems a bit lost walking the aisles. It’s second nature for them to help wherever needed.
Keeping Sueoka Store alive has been a lesson in responsibility and family loyalty. When Rod was 25 years old, he was working in a small market Waikiki on the island of O‘ahu.
“My uncle called and wanted me to come home and work at Sueoka’s,” Rod says. “It was family, so I agreed.”
Wendy was also living on O‘ahu when her mother retired.
“The family called me and asked if I would come home and help out in the office,” she says. “This is family. They put me through college. You say, ‘Sure, I’ll be on the next plane.’”
Wendy and Rod have made sure Sueoka Store continues to be relevant to the community they serve.
“We keep our products as local as possible, following my grandfather’s philosophy,” Wendy says. “We opened our snack shop around 1980, when my Auntie Lily retired from teaching in New York and moved back home to Kaua‘i. All the original recipes are hers. It’s very popular. Kids come home from college and they’ve got to eat there.
“Rod created an Asian products section in the store,” she says. “People come all the way from the other side of the island to pick up his rice, his sauces, his noodles and individual spices. Hotels and restaurants sometimes buy from us when they run out, too.”
Rod’s father, George Sueoka, was responsible for at least two of the things that the store has been known for: its location and its fresh meat.
“In the old days, there were a lot of businesses in Kōloa town, but my dad was the only one who bought the property that the store is on,” says Rod. “At first he said, ‘Why should I buy?’ But that’s why we have lasted so long, because we own the property.”
George was also the butcher.
“He slaughtered all the beef and pigs for the market,” says Betty, who got drafted into the business as soon as she and George were married. “That really was something in the 1930s and 40s, because you had to do all the slaughtering yourself, and you had to do it early in the morning.”
Rod says having a father who was the only butcher in town, had its benefits.
“A lot of our classmates’ parents were sugar plantation workers. Everybody else’s parent was a truck driver or mill worker or field worker,” he says. “My dad didn’t go to war because he was the only butcher in town, so he didn’t get drafted.”
For many years, Sueoka Store has helped visitors reconnect with their own histories on the island.
“A lot of the older people who come to Kaua‘i from the Mainland trying to find their roots or their families here on Kaua‘i, they come see us,” Rod says. “Some of them grew up here, but they haven’t been here for 30, 40, 50 years. They remember us. Sometimes they bring us photographs and ask us if we know their family.”
“If you tell me their names, I’ll tell you where they used to live,” Betty says.
As the Sueoka Store ‘ohana moves into its second century, its connection with the community may change a bit, as the family has sold the business to ABC Stores, a Honolulu-based company. Rod and Wendy will hand over the store in April 2019.
“Rod and I can’t keep doing this forever, and we can’t keep it in the family because nobody wants to take over from us,” Wendy says. “When we first sold, I visited the cemetery where my parents are buried and cried and apologized. But ABC has the same family values that Sueoka’s has, so it will be good.”
Wendy says that ABC plans to keep the store name and the snack shop in place.
As they complete their final year of owning the store that bears their family name, Wendy continues to credit her and Rod’s predecessors for their vision of serving the island.
“We are trying our best to live up to all that our parents and grandparents did that was so wonderful.”
- Pamela Varma is the owner of Write Path Publishing (writepath.net) and the author of Kauai Stories and Kauai Stories 2.