Sweetbread Empire

The rise of King’s Hawaiian
Story by Noel Nicholas. Photo by Melissa Lyttle.

Inside the King’s Hawaiian production bakery in Torrance, California, a massive, multistory assembly of conveyor belts, mixers and ovens hums and beeps, churning out mounds of sticky dough. Perfectly shaped loaves and rolls roast in the ovens, destined for backyard barbecues and lū‘au across the country.

From humble beginnings in Hilo town, King’s Hawaiian has grown into a manufacturing heavyweight with products found in nearly sixteen thousand stores. They’ve sponsored a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and run a Super Bowl ad that reveals the depth of customers’ craving for a little slice of Hawai‘i.

In 1950 Robert Taira, a Hawai‘i-born son of Okinawan immigrants, opened Robert’s Bakery in downtown Hilo. Having just graduated from baking school at the top of his class, he made a bold start: He set up shop across the street from the busiest bakery in town and installed the first refrigerated display case in the Islands. This allowed him to work delicate ingredients like whipped cream into his daily offerings. But it was sweet bread from southern Europe that put Robert’s Bakery on the map.

The opening day blessing at Robert’s Bakery in Hilo must have worked wonders. Nearly seventy years later, Robert Taira’s family business King’s Hawaiian is still thriving.

Around the time that Robert opened his bakery, a neighbor introduced him to Portuguese sweet bread. The pillowy, rounded bread also known as pāo doce has a long history in the Islands, thanks to the Portuguese immigrants who came to work on the sugar plantations in the late nineteenth century. Every Portuguese community in Hawai‘i had a forno, a stone oven used to bake sweet, eggy loaves of bread. The traditional recipe was delicious but had a short shelf life. It came out of the oven soft and doughy; by the next day you could pound nails with it.

Robert spent about a year figuring out how to make Portuguese-style bread that would last longer, without preservatives. He came up with a recipe that stayed soft for about seventeen days. Heavier on eggs, butter and sugar than the original, it cost more to produce. Robert called his adaptation “Hawaiian sweet bread” and sold the eye-catching round loaves in his bakery. Hilo couldn’t get enough of them.

In 1963 Robert moved the business to King Street in Honolulu. He renamed it King’s Bakery and worked his favorite color—orange—into the new logo, packaging and décor. His wife, Tsuneko, suggested starting a mail-order business, putting order forms for overnight bread delivery in shopping bags for tourists. Pricey though it was—around $50 a loaf—mail orders began to flood in. By the late ’60s, postal workers told the Tairas that King’s Bakery was the number one USPS customer in Hawai‘i.

Every morning, two trucks drove to Honolulu International Airport with fresh bread destined for cities from New York to Tokyo. Now that the bread had international appeal, Robert realized that he’d need to move production out of Hawai‘i if he wanted to grow. In 1976 the ambitious entrepreneur left the family to manage the bakery in Honolulu and moved to California. He mortgaged their properties and borrowed money to build a production facility in Torrance.

The equipment manufacturers Robert spoke to all told him he had to change his formula to work with their equipment. Absolutely not, he said. Refusing to compromise the quality of the bread, he had customized machinery built at great expense to accommodate his original recipe. (The specifications of those machines and why they were, and still are, needed is a tightly held company secret.) By the time the custom assembly line was ready, no retailers had come calling. Robert sent samples of his bread to the corporate offices of major retailers on the West Coast. Eventually it paid off; his first contract was with Alpha Beta to stock hundreds of grocery stores in California.

Once the business gained traction, Tsuneko and much of the Taira family moved to Torrance. Robert’s son Mark began attending the University of Southern California, driving deliveries to Alpha Beta stores in the mornings before class. The family opened King’s Hawaiian Bakery and Restaurant on Sepulveda Boulevard in Torrance in 1988. Diners were treated to sit-down service and local-style Hawaiian dishes. A full-service bakery counter sold the family’s breads and confections. The addition of dinner rolls and new bread flavors to their wholesale offerings brought continued success. In 1992 the family closed the King Street location to focus their efforts in California.

By the time Robert passed away in May 2003, King’s Hawaiian stocked the shelves of major markets across the country, including Costco, Sam’s Club and Walmart. Mark took over as CEO of King’s Hawaiian, Tsuneko continues to serve on the board of trustees and three generations of Tairas now manage two successful restaurants and multiple production facilities in California and Georgia. While the company’s continued success is impressive, what’s truly remarkable is that even with more than 1,500 employees spread over several states, King’s Hawaiian still has the heart of a local mom-and-pop.

“When Mark took over as CEO, he wasn’t just a figurehead, he really was the CEO,” says King’s Hawaiian president John Linehan. “The company is now a little over 150 times the size it was when Mark took charge, and he still puts in at least ninety hours a week. He does an extraordinary job.” Mark hired John in 2006 to work on a strategic plan for the future of King’s Hawaiian. The two shared similar values and became fast friends. The duo’s vision includes expanding beyond bread to offer more Hawaiian-fusion-style food. Over the past few years King’s has rolled out a line of barbecue sauces and begun small-batch production and testing for more condiments and specialty items.

When Robert Taira brought his bakery operations to California, he designed custom equipment rather than adjust his classic sweet bread recipe. The company continues to rely on custom equipment to churn out his signature recipes today.

For sixty-three years King’s Hawaiian had grown purely by word of mouth. In 2013 the company advertised to the public for the first time. “King’s was the brand you’d heard of but never heard from,” says Erick Dickens, chief of marketing. Erick and his team conducted consumer research and kept hearing stories with a similar theme. “We learned that if somebody buys King’s Hawaiian, their main concern is that it’s going to be eaten before they’re ready to use it,” says Erick. “Many people will actually hide the rolls somewhere.” This discovery became the basis for the company’s supersuccessful TV commercial.

In “False Cabinet,” a father goes to great lengths to hide some King’s Hawaiian rolls for himself, not realizing that his kids have found the hiding spot and consider it to be their secret stash. This commercial catapulted King’s from a company with zero marketing presence to one of the top advertisers during the 2017 Super Bowl. The ad ranked fourteenth out of sixty-eight on the USA Today Ad Meter, the live poll that allows millions of viewers to rank Super Bowl ads. King’s has since strengthened its relationship with sports fans by opening branded grills at Dodger and Yankee Stadiums and a kiosk at Fenway Park selling hot dogs, barbecue sliders and lobster rolls on their famous sweet bread.

Dino Sheardown, manager of food science, started with King’s as a delivery driver in the ’70s. “I remember skateboarding into my first interview as a young guy and thinking it would just be some job,” he says. “But the Tairas treated their employees like family.” Four decades later Dino oversees production on all of King’s bread lines as well as the innovation of new products in what is affectionately known as“the commissary.” Here Dino and the food science team test new equipment and make small-batch items ranging from barbecue sauces to holiday fruitcakes and fresh saimin noodles for the two restaurants.

Robert’s sweet rolls are featured in King’s Hawaiian’s Super Bowl ad and an animated film, The Legend of Hallowaiian.

If the production side of King’s Hawaiian is all about expansion and innovation, the restaurant side is about constancy. “Many of these recipes are my family’s recipes and haven’t changed for years,” says Mark’s daughter, Courtney Taira. “I think people keep coming because we try to stay true to those authentic local flavors.” With its spired roof, ornate brick chimney, wide lānai and tropical landscaping, King’s Hawaiian Bakery & Restaurant is a mix of old Torrance and Hawaiian plantation-style charm. Inside diners read from massive menus with all-day local-style breakfast and entrees like curry katsu loco mocos. People buzz in and out of the bakery, picking up custom orders or grabbing fresh-baked bread to take home.

You can almost always find a member of the extended Taira family there working, eating or just visiting. “My grandmother, great-uncles and aunties all started this together in ’88 as a place to interface with the public and as a place that could employ everybody,” says Courtney. “Me, my siblings and my cousins all grew up here. We did our homework here. We spent holidays here. We worked our first jobs here. I have fond memories of sitting with my grandpa Robert and listening to his stories, and of seeing grandma Tsuneko icing cakes in the back on busy days.”

Courtney says her grandparents and parents saw the restaurant as a way to support other local families. “We have people that have been working at the restaurant for thirty years, since it opened, and their kids have worked here. The woman who taught me to braid my hair as a girl is coming in later tonight,” she says. “My father has always said we have a responsibility to make sure these jobs stay available by making the right decisions for the company and by helping people rise up within the company when we can.”

While handling calls in customer service, Courtney witnessed the company’s impact. “The vast majority of our calls aren’t complaints. People actually go out of their way to call and thank us for the products,” laughs Courtney. “The most poignant thing I experienced, though, were the number of people who shared that our breads were the only things they or their loved ones could eat during times of illness. It was such an honor to hear that our products brought something to people’s lives in good times and in bad.”

The bakery Robert Taira opened in 1950 is now an international enterprise, still growing and still in the family. Above, left to right: Vaughn Taira, Stella Miyamura, Mark Taira (Robert’s son and current CEO of King’s Hawaiian), Eric Ho and Courtney Taira (Robert’s granddaughter).

Courtney spearheaded projects like the King’s Hawaiian food truck in Honolulu and a congressional bill to name a national Hawaiian Foods Week. She and her two brothers are pursuing MBAs. “With Dad’s generation it was like, after school you work the family business, weekends you work, vacations you work. There was no other option. Now with our generation the business has gotten so big that they don’t need extra bodies all the time. They want us to take the opportunity to go out and learn things that will make the family business even better.” There seems little doubt that another generation of Tairas will take the helm at King’s someday.

In the meantime another type of Taira legacy is in the works. Mark is positioning King’s Hawaiian to give back to the place that gave his family their start. The company sponsors food innovation programs at Kapi‘olani Community College and University of Hawai‘i-Maui College. Each quarter Mark and John share advice and expertise with the participants of Mana Up, a twelve-week accelerator program focused on scaling up small businesses in Hawai‘i. Inspired by the innovation they’ve witnessed in these arenas, Mark and John founded Hui Na Mea ‘Ai Hawai‘i in 2016. Still in its planning stage, the nonprofit is dedicated to providing educational opportunities and infrastructure to Hawai‘i’s next crop of culinary innovators and agricultural entrepreneurs.

Walk into any grocery store where King’s Hawaiian is sold and you can still purchase one of Robert’s classic round loaves. Pair it with spinach and artichoke dip, fry it up as French toast, layer it into a parfait—the internet is packed with recipes that center around Robert’s invention. Starting in 2019, King’s Hawaiian products will be sold in stores outside of the United States for the first time. Anyway you slice it, that’s pretty sweet. HH