Afterthoughts: On the Wedge

Why my favorite deep-fried snack can’t be found on Oahu.

The cover story this month is all about Cheap Eats. It’s a feature we do every few years, and it always gets an enthusiastic response from readers. Who doesn’t love eating well and saving money, after all?

While we were researching, though, I couldn’t help craving my own favorite cheap delicacy. Unfortunately, it’s something I only get a chance to eat once or twice a year, when I fly to Maui.

The object of my yearning? Minit Stop potato wedges. They’re deep fried and crunchy and mealy and spicy and comforting and, at 89 cents apiece, it’s possible to stuff yourself for just a few bucks.

illustration: daniel fishel

It’s far from gourmet food. Most of the wedges I’ve bought from Minit Stop have been consumed right in the parking lot, or at a nearby beach, dosed with a ketchup packet or three. The grease coats your steering wheel, your shift lever, your clothes. The starch induces an instant kanak attack.

And yet there’s something sublime in the simplicity of potatoes, cut lengthwise into six to eight pieces, dredged in the same batter that Minit Stop’s fried chicken gets, and then deep-fried till golden brown and crispy on the outside. (the chicken, by the way, is great in its own right.) If you manage to snag a batch fresh out of the fryer, the wedges are wonderfully, mouth-burningly hot, but they’re good at room temperature, too.

On Maui and the Big Island, Minit Stop convenience stores are ubiquitous, open late, and packed with fried chicken, maki sushi, spam musubi, sub sandwiches, pastries and yes, wedges. The stores are such an integral part of Neighbor Island life that I was dismayed to learn, upon arriving in Oahu, that the chain had never expanded to the rest of Hawaii.

Honolulu, you may be the state’s food mecca in most respects, but you’re getting shortchanged in the convenience store department. 7-Eleven is fine for Slurpees and packs of gum, but its selection of heat-lamp-nuked “food” is wan and unappetizing when compared with the glory of Minit Stop’s fresh offerings.

Why wouldn’t such an obvious winner want in on the biggest market in the state? I called up Jon Miyabuchi, general manager of Minit Stop Stores, to find out. Turns out they’ve thought about it. “We do get a lot of customers who are young and going to UH and they complain that they can’t get their potato and chicken fix,” he says.

But there’s a sticking point: The convenience stores are linked to sister companies, Maui Petroleum and Hawaii Petroleum, which provide fuel for the stores’ gas stations. “The business model works for us because everyone needs gas, and then they come in for all the other stuff,” Miyabuchi explains.

The model has worked, and how. Owner Jim Haynes started with a single, Kahului location in 1982, basing the store on a Japanese franchise that came complete with fried chicken recipe. Thirty years later, the business has grown to 15 locations, and sells 9,000 pounds of potatoes a month, and 36,000 pounds of chicken.

But while opening a convenience store might just be a matter of throwing together a few refrigerators and a deep-fryer, fueling networks take a lot more planning and capital. Miyabuchi says, “We haven’t had the right opportunity yet. We don’t have any fuel facilities on Oahu, and I think it’s a matter of wanting to put the investment in, and do it right.”

Not that the chain isn’t expanding: Miyabuchi says his company is always looking for new spots on both Maui and the Big Island, and is, in fact, opening a new store next year in Lahaina.

I’ll keep holding out hope that Minit Stop will someday find its way to the rest of Hawaii. In the meantime, I’ll be making semiannual Maui pilgrimages to get my fix, and if anyone in Honolulu wants to start making cheap, delicious potato wedges, I promise to be your first, best customer.