A jerky journeyNever underestimate the power of omiyage. It's an insidious force, one that figures prominently in our vacation mentality, causing us to give up several hours on the last precious day of every trip to shop for foodstuffs, then brings us back to Hawaii with more baggage than when we left.
Hawaii visitors to LasVegas
just gotta have their beef jerky
Last of 2 parts | Part 1
By Betty Shimabukuro
Omiyage: It brought us Las Vegas beef jerky.
Survey the departure area at McCarren International Airport where Hawaii people are waiting for flights home. Note the boxes that say "Las Vegas Jerkys," the most common carry-on baggage item in the terminal.
Why? Got beef jerky in Hawaii, right?
Well, think about it. Beef jerky is light. It packs flat. It's non-perishable and indestructible. It's pricey, but not unaffordable, so you'll be carrying back a gift of value for family, neighbors and the gang at work. (By the pound, jerky is right up there with lobster tail, actually.)
Most important, it says right there on the package that it's from Las Vegas. No. 1 rule of omiyage is appropriate sourcing.
The Vegas jerky phenomenon is one of those only-in-Hawaii things that defies logic. In the Downtown area -- which locals favor over the glitzier Strip -- whole stores exist to trade in this substance. They're owned by former Hawaii people, with current Hawaii people being 95 percent or more of their clientele.
One of them -- Vegas Jerky, source of all those boxes at the airport -- is on the third floor of the Plaza Hotel, so far off the beaten path that the first visit requires a guide.
Despite that, and despite the fact that he's never advertised, owner Harvey Higa says the store draws 200 to 400 customers a day, virtually all of them from Hawaii. An average purchase is $50.
Mainly they're buying jerky, in all manner of flavors and textures, but also dried fruits, nuts and candies.
Higa's been here 11 years and three years ago he took over the Islander Beef Jerky line, the brand he credits with starting the craze nearly 30 years ago. He sells the product to other retailers but, "We don't sell it in Hawaii because if we sell it in Hawaii they are not going to buy it here."
To trace the roots of the jerky story, we journey through space and time to Los Angeles in 1961, when Charlie Nakamura, originally from Kona, bought into Diamond Head Food Co., an L.A. producer of Portuguese sausage.
"It was really slow. ... We had so much free time, we used to go out and drink all the time," Nakamura says of himself and his partner, Ed Okamoto.
They noticed beef jerky for sale in bars and liquor stores, but not on the regular snack-food market, and somehow saw their future in the strips of dry meat.
Despite knowing nothing about the product, the two began experimenting in 1962. "We started from scratch, basically -- salt and pepper. Gradually we added shoyu."
The first batch took two days to make, Nakamura says. "We made so many mistakes."
To start they had four custom ovens churning out jerky in a range of flavors, from sweet to spicy to teriyaki. Each batch took six hours.
They began selling in Los Angeles, then all of California, then to military outlets in Vietnam, once the war began. Diamond Head carried all manner of snack foods and expanded quickly. Too quickly.
"We were in everything. Problem was, we grew too fast." Under financial pressure, the partners sold out to Beatrice Foods in 1970.
But a year later, Nakamura was back, in partnership this time with Harry Okamoto of Honolulu. Their company, Islander, began focusing on a new market: Hawaii tourists streaming into California to visit Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm.
They worked through tour companies. "They all had our order forms; we gave them samples. We used to deliver, we used to box." Customers would go home with receipts that carried the company's product list, and through the Hawaii grapevine, again his company grew.
"It was something new, something different and the price, you couldn't beat it."
Volume, Nakamura says, "was quite big."
Then, in 1975, the California Hotel in Las Vegas opened and the rush of tourism from Hawaii to the gambling capital was on. Vegas retailers with Hawaii ties started asking for the jerky, which caught on partly by virtue of its "Islander" name.
Nakamura, now retired and still living in Los Angeles, sold the Islander line in 1998 to Higa.
Islander is not the only jerky in town, nor is Higa's store the only one of its kind. Clustered within just a few blocks Downtown are three other gift shops that specialize in beef jerky and other snack foods: Aloha Specialties in the California Hotel, across the hall from a restaurant of the same name; then on North Third Street, two stores, Kama'aina Gift Shop and the Beef Jerky Store.
That last store used to be called No Ka Oi, but owners Judy and Steve Nitura changed the name four years ago. It makes them easier to find, Steve Nitura says, as tourists come looking for a generic "beef jerky store," and there they are. "That change was really good."
The Nitura family has owned the business for eight years. It's now run by daughter Cathy, but both parents are in the store daily.
They carry the Islander brand, as well as Cattleman's, China Meat, Grumpy's, Kona Gold and several others. Also on their product list: clam, cuttlefish, salmon, turkey and tofu jerkies; nuts, seeds, trail mix and candies. The family packages li-hing flavored candies in a back room.
"It's just something to bring back from Las Vegas," Steve Nitura says. "As long as it says Las Vegas on it, they're happy."
Diversification is important, Higa agrees. Among his top sellers are his wife's Karen's Cookies and bagel chips from the family bakery just two blocks from the store.
"It's humbug to make," Higa says of the bagel chips, "but they keep buying, so we gotta keep making."
The chips are also extremely fragile and have to be hand-carried home, defying the jerky/unbreakable logic.
Also hot are dried persimmons, even though they come from Fresno, Calif. (where they're made, somehow, with sake). "The attraction is, it's scarce."
The walls of Higa's store are lined with hanging bags of snack foods, as are all the other stores. Countertops and shelves are packed with a huge variety of products. Although jerky is the mainstay, the shop must always offer something new, because Hawaii people return to Vegas so often.
This spring he introduced Las Vegas Desert Rocks -- multicolored bits of chocolate that sold to the tune of 200 pounds on the first day. Next month he plans to introduce a trail mix that incorporates beef jerky and dried fruit.
"Hawaii people come three to four times a year," he says, "so you always gotta have something different."
This is the second in a series of articles on
the Hawaii -Vegas food connection.
The Sept. 5 food section focused
on Vegas restaurants serving up
Click for online
calendars and events.