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Monday, October 23, 2000

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Anita and Abe Tanaka mix bread ingredients at Ani's Bake
Shop in Halawa. Pull-apart sweet bread, below, is a favorite.

Bread winners

Ani's Bake Shop started with a
family recipe and rose to a
million-dollar business

By Rod Ohira

THERE'S always time for laughter when a gregarious former fighter pilot, talented baker and former prep all-star football player show up for work each day.

Ani's Bake Shop, at 99-840 Iwaiwa St. near Halawa District Park, is the second-career opportunity that Abe Tanaka, his wife Anita and their son Max never expected.

"I'm the production guy, mom's the creative force," said Max Tanaka, the 43-year-old general manager of his family's bake shop. He is a 1975 Aiea High grad and linebacker who earned Oahu Interscholastic Association All-West honors his senior year.

And what about dad?

"I used to bake, but I always forget to put things in," said 70-year-old Abe Tanaka, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Air Force. "So they kicked me out of the kitchen."

Laughing loudly, he added, "Now, I play golf Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays."

The elder Tanaka, a Kauai native who lettered in four sports at Kapaa High, now runs the business office.

Max and his mother, the former Anita "Ani" Asue of Wailuku, Maui, were full-time schoolteachers in 1983 when the demand for Mrs. Tanaka's homemade bread pushed the family into opening a business.

"Baking was mom's hobby," said Max, the eldest of three children and the only son among them. "She'd cook Portuguese bean soup for us and serve it with a couple loaves of homemade bread.

"Then she started baking for friends."

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Son Nguyen tosses a pile of dough for Portuguese sweet bread.

Ani loved baking for friends, but with a kitchen oven, she couldn't keep up. Even the addition of a 20-quart mixer didn't help. Eventually, the family enclosed their patio to make room for a 60-quart mixer and convection oven that allowed Ani to triple her output from three to 10 loaves at a time.

And it still wasn't enough.

"It was a love and hobby," Ani said. "But it mushroomed. We had to make a decision because it was getting too taxing. We could no longer do it in the house."

In 1983, the Tanakas opened a bake shop in Halawa Industrial Park, farther back in the valley from their present location.

"Our first commercial account was Longs Drug Store," Max recalled. "Dave Young called pops and told him they would like to buy bread and sell it at the Pearlridge store.

"But Pops said, 'No thank you, because we're going to be too busy.' When we heard about it, our first reaction was, 'You told him what?'"

It's a favorite family story repeated often, each time with laughter.

Three years later, the business needed more than 800 square feet to operate, so Ani's moved to its present 3,200-square-foot Iwaiwa Street location, where 2,000 to 4,000 bread loaves are baked daily.

"At the first shop, if we'd get an order for 800 loaves, it would take us a day and a half to get it out," Max said. "Now, we can get a couple thousand out in six to eight hours."

Ani's employs 20 people and is grossing over $1 million annually, the younger Tanaka said.

This has been an unexpected blessing for Abe, Ani and Max.

"This wasn't in my plans, but I've grown to enjoy this work," Max said. "But it's not easy.

"In the early years, we were working seven days a week. We still bake seven days a week, but at least I get a day off now."

Quality inspired by love

Calling it an "eight-year program," Max Tanaka welcomed his graduation from the University of Hawaii and taught briefly at Aiea and Campbell high schools, where he also coached.

"I taught two years, then the business started going," he said. "Mom was almost at the end of her teaching career; she needed two years to retire."

Ani, who is two years younger than her husband, taught for 25 years at Nimitz Elementary School.

In retirement, she now works 14-16 hours a day.

Her mother, Juanita, who came from Spain, died when Ani was 12. The girl developed a close relationship with her aunt, Jessie Amaral, who is called "Nena," which means "little sister."

"She's my real inspiration," Ani said. "Nena was always baking for us, and I remember there were huge crocks all the time with dough rising in them."

Ani learned that good baking depends on two things.

"First, you have to use quality ingredients to make good bread," she said. "But I think you also have to love baking to do it well."

Ani met her husband at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, while they were students there.

Abe Tanaka had transferred after two years at the University of North Dakota and had quit playing football by the time he enrolled at Drake.

Standing barely 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighing 118 pounds, Abe pursued another challenge at Drake. He joined the Air Force ROTC program and was commissioned a second lieutenant after graduating in 1954.

His goal of becoming a pilot hinged on the Air Force's minimum height requirement of 5 feet 4 inches. He expected a close call.

"When I took my physical, I grew my hair out and stretched back as far as I could," Tanaka said. "I cheated a bit to get in."

A seat cushion made flying the F-100D Super Sabre more comfortable, and Tanaka flew 325 missions between 1967 and 1968 in Vietnam.

His 23-year Air Force career meant a lot of traveling for the family. His last assignment was Hickam Air Force Base.

'Uniqueness is our business'

Ani is the driving force of the business.

There's a sign in her office that reads, "Uniqueness is our business," and it serves to remind her that "we have a unique product that isn't something mass-produced.

"It's still fun for me, especially trying to create something different," she said.

At the urging of a friend, who provided the basic recipe, Ani created a sweet potato haupia pie. It sells for $12 plus change at the bake shop and about $15 at special outlets, such as Hungry Lion Restaurant.

"The crust is pure butter and loaded with macadamia nuts," she said. "It's a high-end product, but there's a group of people who desire this and are willing to pay for it.

"I think you'll find that if you put out good quality, people will seek you out."

For the first time since going into business, the Tanakas were able to take a vacation together in February with their son, two daughters -- Kathy and Tracey -- and four grandchildren.

"We closed the business down for a week and went to Disneyland," Max said. "It was great."

It's a close-knit family, Max said.

"Our family tradition is to have a family dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day," he added. "But Thanksgiving and Christmas is also the busiest time for the business.

"Because we produce the bread, mom and I usually don't sleep for 24 hours, working the day before and day of. But Mom refuses to change the dinner date because it's a tradition for us."

Ani's sells assorted pastries, but Portuguese Sweet Bread and breads with fruit fillings are the signature products.

"We can get Ani's in San Francisco, but there's no variety," said Pat Wong, a Kalihi native visiting from Lafayette, Calif., while purchasing 10 loaves recently. "The bread with fruit filling is the best."

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