An isle company is marketing
a microwave version of
the local fare

The newest
wave in

By June Watanabe

It's a taste treat that perhaps only local folks can appreciate - a slice of marinated Spam stuck atop a rectangular block of sticky white rice with a strip of nori (seaweed) wrapped around.

At picnics, at supermarket delis, at ball games, the ubiquitous concoctions are part of the islands' daily fare.

Then state health inspectors blew the whistle, announcing that bentos, Spam musubis and other fast-food local fare no longer could be kept on store shelves indefinitely at room temperature because of the potential for contamination. Devotees of the popular lunch and snack foods wailed that that was the end of musubis as they knew them.

After all, refrigerated rice meant hard rice and hard rice was for the birds.

State regulations now call for the foods sold at room temperature to be tossed after four hours, or to be kept at either less than 45 degrees F or above 140 degrees F.

Elizabeth maiava, left, and Dave Reed prepare musubis for packaging yesterday at the Pizza Shop plant located on Ualena Street near Honolulu Airport. Photos by Terry Luke, Star-Bulletin

Matt Bowden, who knew a lot about pizzas but little about musubis, except that they were like "Mom's food," figured there was another way - an edible way.

After months of experimentation - and feeding a lot of Spam musubis to his three kids - he says he's figured out a way to flash freeze the musubis so that they can be zapped in the microwave and come out tasting as good as fresh.

It was a matter of finding a special process to cook the rice, then flash freezing the musubis at minus-25 degrees, he said.

"Mr. Musubi's Microwave Musubi" is already being sold at Sam's Club in Pearl City and will soon be in Times Super Markets, Daiei stores and Tamura Superette in Waianae. They come three to a pack and will retail for about $2.29 to $2.99, he said.

The major block, Bowden knows, is overcoming skepticism.

At Sam's Club, where the musubis sell in bulk wholesale packs of 12, assistant manager Bill Ramsey said customers who sample the product "are actually surprised that they can get that kind of taste out of a frozen product." The difference, he said, is that the musubis "are frozen when produced, so they're just as fresh" as nonfrozen musubi.

Bowden is so sure he's got a winner, he's predicting eventual sales of 90,000 a month. And, he's in the process of changing the name of his business, the Pizza Shop, to Honolulu Foods to reflect diversification of the 35-employee company he runs with his wife, Lynn, on Ualena Street near Honolulu Airport.

Bowden, 41, a 1973 Kamehameha Schools graduate, has been in the food business all his life, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up the food chain. He even attended Whopper University, as a Burger King management trainee.

About 11 years ago, he and a partner decided to go into business together, opening up a local pizza franchise in Kailua, Kaneohe and on Kaheka Street.

"But we weren't seeing the growth," Bowden said. "When we opened in Kaneohe, I was the only one on that side of the town. Seven years later, when I sold it, there was Pizza Hut, Domino's and Little Caesars."

Six years ago, the Bowdens opened their Ualena Street plant to focus on wholesaling. It's a tiny facility, only about 2,000-square-feet big, but "we're extremely busy," Bowden said, supplying pizzas to schools, hotels, carnivals, the Ice Palace, Discovery Zone and the like. The pizzas are big in fund raising, he said, totaling up to 40,000 a month.

Then a client asked him to make fresh sandwiches, which he did. Another, the ABC Stores chain, asked him to do Spam musubis, which he did.

Then came the crackdown from the Health Department in 1994. "I bought my clients warmers (to store his foods) but that was only a Band-Aid ... I saw the writing on the wall," he said, and began looking at ways to extend the shelf life of musubis.

The "Mr. Musubi" labels bear the brand names of Hinode rice and Spam, the latter as an ingredient and the former company "co-branding" the product, Bowden said. In fact, it was a call to Hinode to ask about possibly obtaining equipment for his venture that led to a partnership. He discovered that the company already was marketing "rice bowls," pre-packed rice-and-meat/fish entrees, which Bowden now packages.

For this entrepreneur, "the next step is frozen bentos, which will be under the 'Lunch Wagon' brand. Hamburger steak, beef stew, chili and rice - like a plate lunch. You throw it in the microwave and nuke it."

Matt Bowden with his microwave musubi.

Despite all this expansion, "pizza will always be our base," Bowden said. But the problem with pizza is that sales are tied to schools or tourism, which are subject to seasonal and cyclical swings.

And all that is tied to the everyday problems of running a small business.

"The company is getting bigger but we are not realizing the profits," Bowden said, noting that he and Lynn, 40, regularly put in 60-hour weeks.

"It's extremely difficult. I made more money managing Burger King. I've got a federally inspected plant. It's like having a policeman follow you everywhere. And my workers comp has gone from $19,000 to $41,000 (a year).

"The only reason we do this is we're long term. Our company is just over 10 years old. Those were our thunder-and-blunder years. We're now in position to experience growth."

The Pizza Shop recorded gross sales topping six figures last year, experiencing an average 20 percent yearly growth, Bowden said. With the musubis, "We hope to see a 50 percent increase. You've heard of safe sex. Well, this is safe musubi."

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