The Spice of Life
OFTEN CALLED THE “KING OF KIMCHI,” MIKE IRISH HAS BUILT HIS GROWING FOOD EMPIRE ON EQUAL AMOUNTS OF HARD WORK AND PERSEVERANCE, AND A DASH OF GOOD FORTUNE.
It was 1971 when Mike Irish’s life changed forever. As a freshman football player for University of Hawai‘i, he sustained an impact injury that broke his neck and left him paralyzed from the neck down.
“I thought I’d never walk again, which gives you a whole different perspective on life,” he recalls.
With the help of doctors and staff at Queen’s and Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific, Irish put in the work and, with a little bit of luck, regained full mobility of his limbs.
“I know I was very fortunate,” he humbly says. “It’s an experience I’m glad I could overcome, and I feel very blessed.
“I owe a lot to REHAB,” shares Irish, who sat on the organization’s board for a decade.
That shift in outlook has stayed with him till this day — demonstrated by his never-give-up attitude and desire to help others whenever possible (he also still sits on the board of Hawai‘i Community Foundation) — and serves as the foundation on which he built his local food empire.
Known as “King of Kimchi,” Irish has been keeping the flavors of Hawai‘i alive as head of Halm’s Enterprises, perpetuating the legacies of kimchi brands such as Parks, Kohala and A-1 in the process. So cemented is the fermented foods icon in the kimchi scene that a documentary filmmaker recently tapped him for insight on the dish.
For someone so suited to satisfying generations of local palates, Irish entered the food industry with no experience, chalking up his success to hard work, perseverance and, again, a little bit of luck. He bought Park’s Brand in 1984 at the urging of the late Alice Yang — the creator of Chicken Alice, which utilizes Park’s Brand Kimchee Sauce.
“(My brother and I are) half Korean, and she considered us her kid brothers,” says Irish, who grew up eating his Korean mom’s homemade kimchi. “I didn’t know what (Parks Brand) was, and Alice said, ‘What kine Korean you?’”
Less than a month later, Irish was the “kine” Korean who owned one of the state’s most popular brands of kimchi sauce. Whether or not it would be profitable was another story.
“All my calculations were wrong,” Irish remembers. “I was losing money.”
To bolster his business, Irish approached Joe Kim of Joe Kim’s Kimchee to forge a partnership. Instead, Kim suggested Irish buy Halm’s Korean brand.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why would I want another kimchi company since I was losing money at Parks?’” Irish remembers.
Despite his initial hesitancy, Irish decided to take whatever capital he had and purchase Halm’s. The transaction paid off three months later when he was able to incorporate Parks into Halm’s and move operations from Kalihi to Wai‘alae.
“That just started to become our business model,” he says. “Instead of developing more product lines, we ended up acquiring more companies.
“A lot of these mom-and-pop shops, the parents started it to put their kids through Punahou or ‘Iolani, but the last thing these kids want to do is come back and label bottles for the rest of their lives. They’re lawyers now or bankers or doctors. So, when the parents want to retire and sell, that’s where we come into play.”
What followed were the addition of local kimchi favorites like A-1 and Kohala, as well as Diamond Head Seafood Wholesale in the early 1990s (formerly Suisan in Honolulu) and Keoki’s (makers of kalua pig and lau lau) in 1995.
“At one time, I had three locations: Kalihi, Fisherman’s Wharf and Wai‘alae Avenue,” says Irish, who would visit each facility at least once a day. “It made the day really long for me, but in those days traffic wasn’t as bad.”
The last kimchi company Halm’s Enterprises acquired was in 2019, and it brought Irish’s journey full circle.
“Right before the pandemic, we bought Joe Kim’s Kimchee,” Irish says. “Here we were 35 years ago talking, and now we’re together.”
Irish’s goal has always been to keep the flavors of Hawai‘i in the islands and to honor the brands that locals have grown to love and tastes that “bring you back to yesteryear,” to hear him tell it. It’s why all the same branding and packaging are in place, and Irish makes sure he sticks to the original recipes. So, if something doesn’t taste right, he has one request: “Please call me,” he says.
Over the years, Irish, who’s been enjoying life as a wine and whiskey hobbyist these days, has picked up quite a bit of knowledge about the nuances of kimchi-making. He notes that vegetable flavors change throughout the year: sweeter and more watery in the winter, and harder and drier in the summer. It’s why he walks the floor of his operation at least twice a week doing taste tests and adjusting salt or sugar where needed, and why each batch is made by hand by dedicated workers — the same way it’s been done for decades.
“We’re just a small bunch of local people trying to make good local food for other local people,” Irish says. “I’m so appreciative to work with the people that I work with to produce what we do for Hawai‘i and give back as much as we can.”