The KTA Way

Andrew Chun, KTA senior vice president of administrative services; Toby Taniguchi, KTA president and COO ; Barry Taniguchi, KTA chairman and CEO; and Lon Taniguchi, KTA vice president of information systems

Thanks to the vision and commitment of the Taniguchi ‘ohana over the past century, KTA Super Stores has grown from a small mom-and-pop shop to a superstore chain that’s highly valuable to Big Island residents.

It’s the day before Category 5 Hurricane Lane is expected to come dangerously close to Hawai‘i Island, and, as expected, the carts in KTA’s Puainako flagship store are bumper to bumper.

The crowds are searching for the essentials: canned goods, water, toilet paper, a couple of cases of beer and Hawaiian Sun juice, cereal and poke. The seafood counter becomes a social hub: the place to see your neighbor, your uncle, your friend. People kiss hello and offer a handshake or a hug with the words, “How you?” even more weighted on this particular morning.

A view of the store from the upstairs offices of the KTA Super Stores Puainako location.

Standing in the middle of the crowd are KTA chairman and CEO Barry Taniguchi and his son, Toby Taniguchi, KTA president and COO — the third and fourth generation of family members to run this company. They are joined by other family members: Lon Taniguchi, KTA vice president of information systems (also Barry’s brother), and KTA senior vice president of administrative services Andrew Chun (a first cousin). Everyone stops to say hello, including longtime vendors or business partners in the community — all loyal KTA customers for generations themselves.

Like Stephanie Clark, whose mom worked for KTA as their assistant controller. Clark has known the Taniguchi ‘ohana since small-kid time. And fish cutter Kip Harworth, a dedicated employee for nearly 30 years. Or Kenneth Funai, a vendor for KTA’s Mountain Apple Brand of products. His conversation with Barry and Lon has everyone in stitches.

This scene, of course, is a typical day at KTA. Now in its 102nd year of operation, the superstore chain, which had modest mom-and-pop beginnings, is a Hawai‘i Island fixture.

Toby and Barry Taniguchi, and Yonnell and Keone Farias catch up between shopping for hurricane supplies.

Today, KTA employs nearly 900 associates from all different walks of life; they are the people who make KTA tick, says Toby. In April, KTA also unlocked the doors to a store in Kealakekua — its seventh location on the Big Island.

“This was the first store we’ve opened in more than 27 years,” says Toby, noting the appointment of Hoku Kamakau as store director. “Hoku represents the upand-coming generation of KTA associates — a generation that is bright, energetic, and full of many unique and creative ideas. We are always working hard to upgrade our technology and skill sets to be able to meet the needs of our ever-changing marketplace.”

It was Barry’s grandparents, Koichi and Taniyo Taniguchi, an immigrant couple from Japan, who had the vision to start KTA a century ago. Their first location was a small 500-square-foot store in Waiakea Town (across from the current Suisan fish market). Taniyo minded the store while watching Barry’s father, Yukiwo, while Koichi delivered groceries by bicycle. At the time, the business was called K. Taniguchi Store.

Fish cutter Kip Harworth (left) is greeted by KTA president and COO Toby Taniguchi. Harworth is just one of KTA’s many employees who has been with the company for decades.

A loyal customer base allowed the couple to expand the business, and the second K. Taniguchi Store opened in downtown Hilo in 1939. But the April Fool’s Day tsunami of 1946 destroyed the Waiakea Town location, and operations were consolidated to the remaining downtown store.

That wasn’t the only tsunami-related setback, either. In 1959, Koichi opened a store in Kailua-Kona. Barry’s father (who ran the stores with two of his brothers) was loading merchandise from the downtown Hilo location to take to Kona the next morning, when he heard a loud rumbling. As quickly as he could, he ran up to the second level of the building, and the tsunami wave washed through the bottom level of the store.

“His car ended up across the parking lot, hanging over the edge of a wall,” Barry recalls. “I remember he called my mother, and she was livid. He could have died. The water went through and under the store, but didn’t break the building apart.”

The downtown store was fixed, and even more stores followed. In 1966, it was the Puainako store, situated on eight acres of land — KTA’s largest superstore and home of its essentials warehouse. In 1984, the Keauhou store was built; in 1989, the Waimea Center store; and in 1990, Waikoloa Village.

“The 1954 era was when the super market concept started to take off,” recalls Barry, 71. “Before that, everything was separate.”

During the ’70s and ’80s, the stores added other conveniences: a bakery, deli and pharmacy at most locations. The deli, Barry notes, has become a fixture in the weekly menu of many of his friends. “It’s convenient, it’s a time-saver, and I have to admit, the food is pretty good,” he says.

It was also in the mid-’70s when K. Taniguchi Super Stores officially became KTA Super Stores, a necessary change to prevent product shipments from being confused with another store with the same “KT” abbreviation. “So the story goes, they added the ‘A’ just to make it different. It really doesn’t mean anything,” says Barry, laughing.

Other employees, not related but still treated like family, have also helped the business grow, while addressing the needs of the community. In 1992, supporting the concept of Hawai‘i-grown foods, KTA executive vice president Derek Kurisu developed a concept for the “Mountain Apple Brand.”

“Derek is a major part of what we do,” Barry says. “He came from a plantation in Hakalau. When the plantations closed down, Derek said, ‘We have to do something to help these local guys.’

“The idea was to help them get started in their business. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is get a product to market. So we label and sell their products for them, hoping that they can generate business and later branch off on their own.”

There are more than 200 different types of Mountain Apple Brand products at KTA, which are grown, processed or manufactured in Hawai‘i. The products range from fresh milk and eggs to range-fed beef, fresh breads, cookies, coffee and desserts. Other offerings include an assortment of pre-cut salads, as well as ethnic food preparations including smoked fish, poi and seaweed.

Kurisu also conceived of KTA’s television shows Living in Paradise, and Seniors Living in Paradise, on Spectrum, Channel 27.

Adapting to the changing times is just part of what has contributed to KTA’s longevity. “To me, old-fashioned values are important,” Barry says. “My grandfather really believed that the customer is always right. Loyalty to our employees is also very important. Many of our employees have been with us 30 or 40 years. I think we’ve tried to engrain in our employees that giving back to the community is important and the customer is important.”

With that sentiment in mind, Barry notes that each store has a committee of employees who brainstorm ways to give back.

“For example, our front-end supervisor Tony Armstrong is chairman of our creative committee, and he comes up with our Halloween haunted house concepts every year at our Puainako store,” Barry says. “Other celebrations like our Kids’ Day, Customer Appreciation Day and Mountain Apple Day are also created using ideas from our employees.”

Barry says he is now semi-retired and ready to put KTA in the hands of his son, Toby, the only one of his five children involved in the family business.

“Toby is practical and smart, and he has a lot of street smarts,” Barry says. “He’s really adept at technology and gets along with people. We call him ‘Johnny Aloha.’ I also think he brings a different level of thinking. I’m still old fashioned.”

Barry says he encouraged Toby to work outside the family business for a while and to pursue whatever he wanted. But in the ’90s, Toby, who was living in Portland, Oregon, began to dream of coming home. He asked if there was a place for him in the family business. Barry said yes, but made him start from the bottom and work his way up.

“My father didn’t have me do that when I started with the company, and it was hard for me to relate,” Barry admits. “So Toby started as a clerk/ cashier, and we moved him all around.”

“Having to start working from the bottom up was a privilege,” says Toby. “I’m glad my dad insisted on that approach when I came back to work for the family business. It afforded me the opportunity to learn about each position in the store from an incredible group of mentors and to see just how important each position is to the overall success of the organization.”

Ready at the helm, Toby says he’d like to see KTA continue to remain relevant with the needs of the communities they serve while still honoring the values and traditions of their past.

“The Japanese have a saying, ‘okage sama de,’ or ‘I am what I am because of you.’ KTA is what it is today because of our people — our associates, our customers, product vendors, service contractors and business/ financial partners,” he explains. “I think my dad and all of our other leaders, both past and present, have done a tremendous job of stewarding the organization over the past few decades. Their fortitude allowed us to celebrate more than 100 years in business.”