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Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, August 23, 2000


By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Sam Cadelina checks on a batch of malassadas frying in
hot oil at Leonard's Bakery on Kapahulu Avenue.

Leonard’s leads the
malassada market

Fourth in a series

By Betty Shimabukuro

Leonard was Frank Rego's middle name, and the one he favored.

He gave it to both his sons, Lawrence Leonard and Frank Leonard Jr. And he gave it to his bakery, Leonard's, founded in 1952.

"He liked the name Leonard," Frank Jr. sums up. As does the son, who went by Lenny as a youth and has grown into the name Leonard now that he's in his 40s and a dad himself -- not to mention chief proprietor of the bakery.

The name is old German for lion-hearted. Which brings us to the Leonard's malassada.

This sugary, well-browned, somewhat oily and unmistakably fragrant dough ball is the brave little pastry that became a cultural icon. The malassada is king of beasts among doughnuts. If you doubt its power, wave a fresh one under the nose of a dieter. You may see actual tears.

Many bakeries make malassadas today, but Leonard's is unchallenged in its claim to being the first in Hawaii to put the traditional Portuguese treat on the market.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Frank Leonard Rego Jr. holds a copy of a newspaper ad
announcing the opening of his father's bakery. Rego says
he's superstitious about keeping an exact count of the
malassadas sold daily, although he allows that the
bakery can fry 15 to 16 dozen every three to four
minutes. "The bakery on Shrove Tuesday is just

It was Shrove Tuesday 1953, a few months after the bakery opened. For those not up on Catholic terminology, Shrove Tuesday is the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, the period of self-deprivation that leads up to Easter. The eating of something truly indulgent on this day is tradition.

Rego Sr.'s mother, Mary Rego, suggested that the new bakery might make a name for itself with this pastry from her homeland.

"The bakers all thought, 'This will be too ethnic. No one will go for this. Don't make us do this,' " Rego Jr. says. He wasn't even born at the time, but the story is engraved in his family's history.

"From what I understand, it was a hit from the very first."

His father enlisted Lucky Luck to make television commercials for the malassada, and that helped establish its fame.

Not that the first malassadas were such a great product. "From what I understand from my mom and dad, when they first made them they were heavy and soaked up a lot of oil," Rego says. "They soon refined it so it was a better product. Not so heavy, not so oily, not so greasy."

Rego Sr. died in 1980. Margaret Rego, who decorated cakes for decades and ran the bakery for 12 years after her husband's death, is 83 and retired, although she still visits the Kapahulu shop. "She always tells me how bad she feels for not helping me," Rego says.

Two other children, Rego's brother and sister, have passed away, leaving him the final keeper of the family legacy.

It's a legacy with a few mysteries. Why, for example, did Rego Sr. give his youngest child the moniker of junior? Whey did he choose the youngest to take over? And why did he persist on misspelling the name of his most famous product? At Leonard's they've always been malasadas -- one S short of the proper Portuguese spelling.

Rego Jr. doesn't have any of those answers. He remembers a woman complaining often to his father that malassada should have a double S. "She used to tell my dad all the time, 'Why don't you fix your sign?' He says, 'Nah, I'm not going to.' "

Leonard's has 35 employees at its main Kapahulu bake shop, with another 35 working in the Leonard's Junior location in Waimalu and in two malassada wagons.

Those wagons, by the way, are another hallmark of the business. Rego says his father introduced them in the late 1950s or early '60s, and had as many as eight on the road. "When I was a little kid, my job was to sit on a plastic bucket in the malassada truck and count scrip at the 50th State Fair. I was too short to do anything else. I thought that was a really important job. I was really honored."

Rego now outfits the last malassada wagons himself, down to rebuilding fryers to fit.

The malassada remains Leonard's No. 1 product, accounting for about two-thirds of the bakery's sales (the bakery also does big business in Pao Doce, or sweetbread, and in cakes).

Production remains completely unautomated. The dough is squeezed by hand into 2-inch balls, then allowed to rise. They're fried in canola oil, then rolled in either white or cinnamon sugar.

This Shrove Tuesday, Leonard's introduced Malassada Puffs, filled with chocolate dobash, custard or haupia. A little machine handles the filling of the puffs.

Rego hesitates, though, when it comes to tampering too much with the original. He'd like to automate the processes for some items the bakery produces, but not if it means drastic changes in any recipes. He'd also like to open more shops and put more wagons on the road.

But he proceeds with caution, mindful of the family legacy. "The niche we have in the market is the niche we'll keep."

He's seen too many bakeries start up with big plans, only to fail and end up auctioning off all their shiny new equipment. He's picked up a lot of pieces that way, in fact.

"I want to be at the auction," he says. "I don't want to be the one trying to get out from under."

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About this series

We've devoted the Wednesdays of August to Hawaii's most successful bakeries, especially to the single item that is each bakeries claim to fame:

Bullet Aug. 2: Liliha Bakery's Coco Puff
Bullet Aug. 9: Napoleon's Apple Napple
Bullet Aug. 16: Dee Lite's tropical chiffon cakes
Bullet Next week: Your favorite neighborhood bakeries

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