lead to cold cash
Flavored 'ice cakes' helpBy Rod Ohira
Glenn Yamamoto turn an Aiea
snack shop into a million
GLENN Yamamoto opened a snack shop in Aiea six years ago, confident of doing break-even business of $350 a day.
"We started with crack seed, shave ice, soda and popcorn," said the 37-year-old president of Samurai Inc. "Honestly, I thought people would just come in and I was shocked they didn't."
With Samurai Shave Ice averaging only $100 a day in sales by the end of the first month, his wife - the former Fay Abeshima -- pregnant with their first child, and his work week expanded to 70 hours, Yamamoto caught a break.
"We had tried everything to increase sales. Then one day, my wife brought home ice cakes," Yamamoto said, referring to the frozen treats made with flavored syrup and water.
"Ice cakes turned this thing around. I modified an old-fashioned recipe to make 20 different flavors instead of just strawberry. If it were just one color, it wouldn't sell.
"Ice cakes drew people in and you need traffic to sell."
Samurai Inc. has grown into a wholesale snack outlet with annual sales expected to top $1.75 million this year.
Ice cakes and "Maui-style sherbet," which Yamamoto began marketing in 1996, account for 40 percent current sales but Samurai Inc. also produces a variety of packaged snack products, including arare and furikake popcorn.
In 1995, Yamamoto opened a processing plant on Alahao Place, off Sand Island Access Road.
"Business went up, up, up until we opened the plant," he said. "At the time, there was an economic downturn and sales dropped. We had to decide whether to close it down or look elsewhere."
The answer was moving Samurai Shave Ice from Aiea Shopping Plaza to Aiea Shopping Center, next to Times Supermarket, on Aiea Heights Drive.
"From Day 1, we've done well there," Yamamoto said. "I've learned now that it's good to be next to a box user, like Times or Longs, because those business draw 2,500 customers a day. And that helps us."
In 1998, Yamamoto moved his Sand Island plant across the street into a bigger building that's fast becoming too small.
The business employs 28 people at the plant and eight at the Aiea store. There will be more hires as Yamamoto plans to open a downtown outlet at Pioneer Plaza on Thursday.
"We've had some lucky breaks -- stumbling onto the ice cakes, sherbet and furikake popcorn -- so I feel grateful and blessed," Yamamoto said. "This has been a fulfilling journey so far."
A Wahiawa native and Leilehua High graduate with a degree in accounting from the University of Hawaii, Yamamoto is the youngest of three children.
Glenn's father, the late Thomas Yamamoto, and mother Hilda are former owners of Tommy's Fender Shop on Kilani Avenue and the old Kilani Inn in Wahiawa.
After graduating from college, Glenn Yamamoto became an insurance agent. "I made good money but I've always wanted to own my own business," he said.
Yamamoto, who considers himself a risk taker, took a chance on the snack shop. "To do it, you've got to be willing to lose. I sold my insurance book and put my savings and house on the line. I was willing to lose all that.
"The difference is if you work for someone, you're always waiting to go home. If it's your business, you never want to leave work."
During his first three years in Aiea, Yamamoto says he was on the verge of bankruptcy four times.
"I had a lot of sleepless nights," he said. "I remember going home once and asking my wife if she would be disappointed if we lost the house. She said 'it's just a house.' "
A year after adding ice cakes to the inventory, Samurai Shave Ice's sales was up to $950 a day, says Yamamoto.
Yamamoto created his "Maui-style sherbet" after sampling a version of the ice cream treat while visiting the Valley Island.
"I looked around for recipes, couldn't find any, so we made our own," he said. "It's basically light ice cream mixed with heavy syrup.
"Once we had the basics down, we could make all different flavors. We've got 12 now. I think our frozen products are unique because I don't see anyone else doing it."
Yamamoto uses Dreyer's to distribute his "Maui-style sherbet" to markets.
He has invested more than $300,000 on new production equipment, including one that is capable of producing 100-150 gallons of "Maui-style sherbet" an hour. The current system can do about 40 gallons an hour, he says.
Since opening his business, Yamamoto has learned a lot from fellow businessmen like Gilbert Yamada, Mel Tanioka, Eddie Flores, Greg Gomes, Charles Higa and Cliff Tamura.
"They have different social personalities but all of them have a fine thread running through them," Yamamoto said. "And that is, if they see an opening, they go for it."
Yamamoto is on a roll but, win or lose, he says the ride is worth it.
"There are jobs where I could make more money but to make decisions and run a business like this is, to me, worth the experience," he said.
"I don't know what will happen in the future but if we fail, I'll always look back on this as the experience of a lifetime."