in the bun
The popularityBy Rod Ohira
and variety of fillings -- of
Nelson Chun's manapua
keeps on growing
Nelson Chun's professional life revolves around laws and orders.
The 46-year-old Honolulu native is a corporate attorney with Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright by day -- and the prime mover of a successful wholesale-retail family food business at night and on weekends.
Chun's innovative manapua creations have added a new dimension to Chun Wah Kam Noodle Factory Inc. at 505 Kalihi St., which also makes noodles and sells take-out plate lunches.
His steamed manapua are large, stuffed generously and priced between 80 cents and $1 a piece. But what makes them unique is the variety of fillings available.
The ever-growing list, which currently numbers 14, includes traditional char siu, lup cheong and black sugar, as well as shoyu chicken, honey-garlic chicken, sweet potato, teri beef, kalua pig, spinach and jack cheese, and cheese.
"Not everything works," said Chun, an Iolani alumnus and president of Chun Wah Kam. "We tried a seafood one that bombed and Spam didn't work out, either. I'm still trying for a good vegetarian but vegetables are hard to work with in manapua.
"I'm open to suggestions and people call me all the time. We put out a pumpkin manapua for Thanksgiving that did well."
On its busiest days -- Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays -- Chun Wah Kam sells 2,000 manapua, he estimated.
"I never buy manapua anymore from anywhere else," Ezrita Parrow of Kapolei said. "I like their (bun) because of its texture. Others I've tried are too spongy."
Another customer, Wayne Kama, agrees.
"Right now, it's No. 1," Kama said, placing four boxes of manapua into his car's trunk. "The (bun) is the best."
Chun went into the manapua business about five years and started without a good recipe.
"Just doing noodles wasn't fun so together with the guys at the factory, we started fooling around and it just blossomed," Chun said. "All of this trial and error. We threw away a lot of stuff."
Chun says it took a few years to come up with a bun that met their standards.
"We wanted something light, not gooey," Chun said. "Texture was important to us because it has to feel good in the mouth.
"We also wanted a really white color and, of course, something that tasted good."
The bun recipe is a secret, but Chun says the sweetness isn't from sugar alone.
"Even to this day, we tinker with it," he said. "We changed it as recently as a few months ago. The way we make it today is very different from when we first started."
Chun took another bold step by experimenting with nontraditional fillings.
"This is my fun job and I treat it like a hobby," he said. "I think my legal training has helped because instead of asking why, I always say, why not?
"I was sitting in a movie theater with my wife, Deb, one night when I began thinking about all the different varieties (of fillings) and started fooling around with it.
"Kalua pig was one of the early ones and the one we're selling now is our third try (at a filling).
"In the beginning, people weren't buying the stuff, but once they tried something other than the traditional fillings, they liked it. The growth has been great the last two or three years so we've been very lucky in these hard economic times."
Chun Wah Kam's success in attracting walk-in customers to a site that has only five parking spaces has a lot to do with the way the business is run.
"Our rule is that we not only have to give people the best product we can for the money but also great service," Chun said.
"We don't advertise, have no parking, and no place to sit, but they come and stand in line. So we try to get them in and out in three minutes. If it gets busy, we have people in back who will come out and help."
The popularity of Chun Wah Kam's manapua is being spread by word of mouth.
"I found out about this place six months ago when somebody brought manapua to the office," Sam Keliinoa said. "Now I come once a week."
Although business is good, Chun isn't taking anything for granted.
"I'm very competitive," he says. "We always go out and buy other manapua to taste, especially if we hear about one we haven't tried. And we're always thinking of ways to make what we have better."
Chun's sister, Shui Ching Chang, and his nephew, Steven Wong, run the factory's day-to-day operation while he handles the administrative duties at night.
"We have a lot of people talking to us right now about business expansion and we'll probably do something next year," Chun said.
Chun's family owns the property where the factory is located. Before moving to its current location, the factory was on Kukui Street in Chinatown and then near Dillingham Plaza.
The late Chun Wah Kam began making noodles in 1941, about two years after immigrating to Hawaii from Chung-shan, China.
Chun, the only son and youngest of Chun Wah Kam's four children, says the factory was still making noodles using three machines that were custom-made for his father more than five decades ago.
"We just couldn't find replacement parts," Chun said. "When we finally switched over to new machinery about six years ago, my father was very happy.
"He was traditional but wasn't afraid of change. That's our approach, too."