After 71 Years in Business, Hawai‘i’s Family-Run Foodland is Swinging for the Fences
Changes are happening across Foodland’s 33 stores, some gradual and subtle, others as over the top as the more than 100 new Maika‘i brand items that pop up everywhere you look. And there’s more coming.
The poke bar at Foodland Farms in Ala Moana
It’s 11 a.m. at Foodland Farms Ala Moana and the lunch crowd is building. Kalbi roast chickens wait at the deli counter, gandule quinoa and ‘ulu beef stew at the hot food bar. A line is forming at the standalone poke counter; by noon it will snake around the stanchions. Next to cigars at the 40-seat R. Field Wine Co. bar, workers prep displays of charcuterie and cheese. “Good luck getting a seat here around 4 p.m.,” says Foodland corporate chef Keoni Chang.
Changes are happening across Foodland’s 33 stores, some gradual and subtle, others as over the top as the more than 100 new Maika‘i brand items—including potato chips, kim chee dip, dried poha berries and cocoa truffle spread—that pop up everywhere you look. And there’s more coming: New Foodland Farms stores will open in Pearl City and Kapolei this year; another is slated for Kāhala next year. Each will be different—from each other and from the flagship at Ala Moana Center, where mall workers and seniors from Makiki mingle with pau hana business types and tourists picking out pineapples. One thing you can bet on everywhere: smorgasbords of ready-to-cook, ready-to-eat and made-to-order food.
Ravie Viloan at the poke bar AT FOODLAND FARMS in ALA MOANA.
“We made the mental shift that we’re not (just) a supermarket. We’re a provider of food solutions,” Chang says. “What is uniquely Pearl City? The area has a lot of Japanese families. What’s special to them that maybe through the course of time has gone away but if we revitalize would be meaningful to them? At the same time, what are the younger generations looking for? There’s also a good military population out there; what are they looking for? And Ka Makana Ali‘i (in Kapolei), what are the unique needs there that are different from Pearl City or Ala Moana?”
Three new stores in two years, an explosion of prepared foods, food concierges, online grocery ordering and delivery, its own brand-name line of packaged foodstuffs, meal kits that promise dinner on the table (pork hash loco moco, anyone?) in 30 minutes or less: The state’s biggest locally owned supermarket chain is swinging for the fences. Against intense competition from giants like Costco and Amazon-owned Whole Foods, Foodland is banking on one advantage the others don’t have. It’s the only one that gets Hawai‘i’s inner local.
Jenai Sullivan Wall, chairman and CEO of Foodland, took over running the brand from her father, Maurice J. Sullivan, in the 1990s.
If Foodland seems suddenly gripped by the need for dramatic change, think again. Change is a constant in the world of supermarkets. In 1916, Piggly Wiggly brought self-service grocery stores with prepackaged food, standardized layouts and checkout lines into a landscape of butcher shops, fish stalls and mom-and-pop stores. Foodland’s story begins when Maurice J. Sullivan, an Irish-born U.S. Army recruit from the East Coast, opened the state’s first modern supermarket at Market City in 1948 with the Lau family, whose neighborhood store in Lanikai he’d been managing and whose daughter he would marry. Foodland had plenty of competition: In 1949 the Teruya brothers opened Times Supermarket, in 1954 the Fujiekis opened their first Star Market, and in 1963 Safeway arrived. “What I remember was how my father always wanted to try new things,” says Jenai Sullivan Wall, Foodland’s chairman and CEO. “Even when I was growing up we had a commissary where we would prepare food to sell at some of the stores. It was really unusual at the time. When he visited other supermarkets, which we always seemed to do on our family vacation, he would look for ideas.”
By the time he passed the baton to Wall in the 1990s, Foodland had long since spanned the state. Not content with owning supermarkets, Sullivan had brought the first McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts to Hawai‘i (both since divested, though he would go on to found the Ronald McDonald House Charities in Hawai‘i). The more than 175 retail shops he opened included gift and apparel boutiques and Sack N Save and Food Pantry grocery stores. An early disruptor himself, knowingly or not Sullivan helped prepare Foodland for the next major disruptor: the arrival of Costco in 1988.
Jose Catellanos, butcher AT FOODLAND FARMS in ALA MOANA.
Costco’s impact was seismic. After that, Sam’s Club and Walmart came, then more Costco stores, Safeway’s Kapahulu “lifestyle” store with soft lighting and a Starbucks, and finally Target and Whole Foods Market. Not surprisingly, local ownership began to disappear. Japan’s Don Quijote now owns Times, Big Save, Shima’s Supermarket in Waimānalo, Fujioka’s Wine Times and Marukai.
This is Foodland’s playing field today. “Foodland is expanding their product lines and markets to allow their economies of scale to grow. But it is really difficult for a regional retailer to compete with national and international retailers,” says real estate consultant Stephany Sofos. “What they’re doing is making their move. If you don’t establish your position in the marketplace, you’re going to get rolled over by the big guys.”
Some of the new Maika‘i products.
Lauren Moder, director of Foodland’s Maika‘i brand products, is talking about a potato chip. “It was one of those things I would literally lug back from the Mainland many, many years ago,” she says. When Moder went looking for snacks for the Maika‘i label, she found what she was looking for at a chip company in Southern California. “I was expecting to see some big machine,” but no, “It was one surfer dude holding the potato on the slicing machine, putting them into the kettle, then draining and seasoning them. He said, ‘We have to get a special potato, it’s not just any potato.’”
Today, those chips come in a bag with a swoosh-y green M flashing a shaka. “Hand Cut Potato Chips,” it says. “Read our chips. It’s crunch time!” Nowhere is there anything about the surfer dude or even California. Stories like this abound in Moder’s office at Foodland’s Kaimukī headquarters. There’s cocoa truffle spread from France, made by a family-owned business following a 70-year-old recipe (slather it on salty pretzels, she says). Crab curry rice crackers from northern Thailand, from another small company Moder discovered at an expo, will roll out this summer. Made-in-Italy olive oils, sauces, organic pasta and three-year-aged balsamic vinegar are coming later this year. Already sprinkled throughout Foodland, Foodland Farms and Sack N Save stores are wasabi kakimochi, macadamia nut pancake mix, liliko‘i syrup, Maui onion mustard and Sriracha ranch barbecue sauce—all under the swoosh-y M.
the charcuterie plate at the wine bar AT FOODLAND FARMS in ALA MOANA.
Maika‘i is Foodland’s counterpoint to Trader Joe’s as the spot for gifts. The hope is that locals will see cachet in a local brand and send it to friends outside of the Islands, and visitors will take it home in their suitcases. Most items come from family businesses, about 20 percent of them from Hawai‘i; all are taste-tested and often tweaked. “We know what our customers like and we’ve grown up with so many of them. We wanted this chance to really bring things that our competitors weren’t necessarily bringing in and adding our Foodland flavor to it,” Moder says. “We would be the armchair traveler for the customer. We would go out and find these items and bring it home for everybody who shops with us.”
The surprising thing is that even with Moder scouring the globe and the tweaking, packaging design, production and everything else that followed—for all 137 products—developing the line took just over a year. And Maika‘i rolled out only four months ahead of the chain’s next major initiative, Calabash meal kits, which sprang from the kitchen at Foodland Farms Ala Moana. Mains and sides are mix-and-match: miso-glazed salmon, smothered mushroom pork chops and Sriracha garlic chicken wings for entrées; chile lemongrass choi sum, pipi kaula fried rice or wilted kale with bacon as sides. New choices rotate in every week, all portioned for two in vacuum-sealed bags and ready to cook and eat in minutes. “You’re getting a [restaurant-caliber] meal at the same time as you’re getting a home-cooked meal,” says Chang, the corporate chef. “This is a uniquely Hawai‘i program. It could stand on its own in any metropolitan market.”
Claire Quiroga, bakery manager at Foodland Farms in Ala Moana.
Behind the deli at Foodland Farms Ala Moana, the chain’s largest in-store kitchen is as big as a small house. Two hamper-size deep fryers are dedicated to fried chicken, a deli section turns out hundreds of Spam musubi daily, and 6-foot ovens bake trays of baguettes, bear claws, muffins and cookies. Ahead of the lunch rush, all five sections—kitchen, bakery, deli, pastry and produce—are in full production mode. In all, a crew of 40 turns out the prepared foods that fill fully half of the store’s floor space.
This Foodland Farms was not in the game plan. The company had closed its small Ala Moana store when the lease ran out, so it was a surprise when the mall called offering a space two-and-a-half times as large in its brand new ‘Ewa wing. This was big-league. In the core urban market, between Honolulu’s dense older neighborhoods and Waikīkī, the sheer size of Foodland Farms Ala Moana blew the game wide open. Wall and her team could finally showcase ideas they’d been collecting through years of trend-watching and scouting trips to supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores and food halls across the globe. “Our goal was to open a store that would make the community proud,” Wall says, and make them say, “This is my store, and wow, a local company did that. … That gives me pride because I’m local too. I don’t have to think that what’s coming from the Mainland is necessarily better than what’s local.” She says, “I think it really gives people a sense of pride to know that their store is something very special. And it’s as good or better than any other store.”
The full scale of it hits you when the doors open. Counters offer boba tea and bubble waffle ice cream cones. A doughnut robot fries pale rings to hot goldenness as you watch. There are gas-fired pizza ovens, bulk bins, fresh juices. Whole fried akule in season at the hot bar. An omiyage corner selling an all-local lineup of curds, honey, coffee, chocolate and potted plants, mostly from small businesses. A wall of eco-friendly tote bags flashing shaka signs, poke bowls and Spam musubi. At dine-in tables, as many as 100 customers at a time can tuck into steak plates from Foodland-owned HI Steaks, sip cappuccinos from a Foodland franchise of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, or bring anything else purchased in-store. Food concierges store groceries while customers shop the mall then run them out to parking spaces out front when they’re ready. And right inside the doors: displays of fresh produce leading to aisles of traditional groceries.
The Ala Moana store did make locals proud. After 30 years of watching Costco and Whole Foods lead the game while other giants snapped up local players, a resignation had set in. Now there was a direct competitor to Whole Foods two blocks away in Kaka‘ako—one that showcased char siu roast chickens and salmon chazuke chip dip and shaka signs everywhere. By its first birthday the new Foodland Farms had doubled sales—and 60 percent of its customers were local. Developers in Pearl City, Kapolei and Kāhala reached out. Foodland had found big-league cachet.
The game is still on. The new Foodland Farms opening in Pearl City and Kapolei later this year will have kitchens the size of Ala Moana’s but different offerings. Perhaps most interesting will be the new Kāhala store, set to open next year across Wai‘alae Avenue from Whole Foods and kitty-corner from Times. “I think we feel confident enough in our abilities that we can take what we see and make it right for Hawai‘i,” Wall says. “We have the ability to flex what we’re offering to make sure it responds to our customers in that community. So if you go into Pearl City, you will have a sense that this is Foodland, but you will also hopefully feel that wow, this is the right store for Pearl City and it’s not Ala Moana, it’s not ‘Āina Haina. It’s a Pearl City store.”
Whatever’s in store will be worth watching.