Support of local
products propels KTA

The supermarket chain remains
strong with 6 Big Isle outlets

By Rod Thompson

HILO >> A little old man used to sweep the sidewalk fronting K. Taniguchi Store in downtown Hilo many years ago, says Derek Kurisu, executive vice president.

"People thought he was the janitor," Kurisu said.

The man was actually Koichi Taniguchi, who in 1916 founded the store, which became KTA Super Stores, the Big Island's most successful locally owned supermarket chain.

While other Big Island supermarket chains have gone into reorganizational bankruptcy or disappeared entirely, KTA remains strong with six stores.

"My grandfather was a very humble man. He felt, and we still feel, we don't talk about ourselves," said KTA President Barry Taniguchi. If the company does good things, "people will find out eventually," he said.

When the company recently donated $25,000 for the renovation of historic Haili Church, the company wanted no publicity, Taniguchi said. Haili representatives had to call KTA several times to convince the company that publicity would help the church.

From a balcony overlooking the company's flagship Puainako Street store in Hilo, KTA Super Stores Executive Vice President Derek Kurisu enjoyed a good view of the store's activity.

Besides humility, foresight helped KTA. Tony Taniguchi, one of Koichi's sons who followed his father as president of the company, once told Kurisu: "When the sugar plantations go under, (sugar workers) are all going to come to you. You've got to help the people."

Sugar looked stable then. "I didn't know what he was talking about," Kurisu said.

In 1994, as sugar companies went under, Kurisu created Mountain Apple Brand, a program that assists Big Islanders with marketing local products.

Product labels, a major problem for small food producers, illustrate how Mountain Apple aids small businesses. Someone who sells only five bottles of homemade guava sauce in two weeks need not lock into an expensive batch of 1,000 labels when Mountain Apple can provide a small number of labels, Kurisu said.

The emphasis on local production is seen in the sources of KTA's products. More than 90 percent of KTA's leafy vegetables are grown on the Big Island compared to 50 percent at some competing stores, Kurisu said.

KTA's beef is 30 percent locally produced, compared to perhaps 10 percent for competitors. All of its milk, all of its bananas and 85 percent of its eggs come from the Big Island.

Local support applies to people as well.

Raised in Hakalau, north of Hilo, Kurisu as a boy would come with his family to Hilo and shop at Taniguchi Store on plantation paydays.

Kurisu's first job was at the store. His qualification: the ability to carry a 100-pound bag of rice.

But store management felt Kurisu's education was more important. Tony Taniguchi insisted Kurisu go to college at Manoa, and found three jobs for him to pick from while studying there.

"When I was at Honolulu, Tony would come and pick me up and take me to dinner," Kurisu said. "The manager and supervisors (where Kurisu worked as a meat cutter) were all in awe."

The tradition continues. "To a lot of people working in the company today, we say, 'You go to school. We'll work around your schedule.' School comes first," he said.

Guiding the company is a Japanese word, "kaizen," meaning constant improvement. For example, Kurisu wants his Mountain Apple suppliers to expand.

"I expect them to go and sell to my competitors," he said.

Meanwhile, Kurisu will be looking for still newer local products.

"It puts a lot of pressure on me to make it grow," he said. "My stuff will always be the research and development for the economy."

K. Taniguchi Store
and KTA Super Stores

1916: Founded in Waiakea (Hilo) by Koichi and Taniyo Taniguchi.

1939: Downtown Hilo store acquired.

1946: Waiakea store destroyed by tsunami.

1959: Kona store opened.

1966: Puainako Street (Hilo) store opened, now company headquarters.

1979: First company in the state to use checkout scanners.

1994: Mountain Apple Brand created.

Company name: Shipments for competitor K. Tahara store were marked "KT" at Hilo harbor. Taniguchi shipments were marked "KTA" to distinguish them.

Family connections: Store was created to provide income to support son Yukiwo, the first of nine Taniguchi children. Son Tony eventually succeeded founder Koichi. Current President Barry Taniguchi is the son of Yukiwo, called "Mr. Y."

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