End Of An Era

The Sueoka family hands over the reins to its namesake market after more than 100 years of serving Kaua‘i and its residents.

April marked the first time in more than 100 years that Sueoka Market, located in the heart of Kōloa town, is not owned and operated by a member of the Sueoka family. The landmark business has officially been acquired by the Kosasa family of Honolulu, whose operations include a chain of ABC Stores.

In 1918, Mankichi Sueoka borrowed money from his “tanomoshi” group to open a small store in a Japanese plantation camp. Besides serving the Kōloa community, he took orders from people as far away as Līhu‘e and Keālia, making home deliveries on his horse-drawn wagon. In 1933, the business — founded as Sueoka Store — moved to its present location, and eventually Mankichi was able to purchase the property.

Mankichi’s grandchildren Rod Sueoka, 67, and Wendy Kawaguchi, 68, began working at the store in 1975 and 1978, respectively.

“I remember when we were small, Wendy and I running around the store and playing,” says Rod Sueoka.

The cousins also recall the days when the store still delivered to homes throughout the South Shore area. Their parents would load up the back of a truck, the kids riding in cardboard boxes in the back, and travel down old dirt roads, delivering groceries from house to house throughout Kōloa, Lāwa‘i and ‘Ōma‘o.

Cora Balocan retired from Sueoka Market March 31, after 50 years of service.

Times were different in those days, Sueoka says.

“I remember back then, my dad used to wake up early in the morning to go and choose what cow he wanted.

He’d slaughter the cow and then bring back the meat (to the store),” he recalls.

For years, manufacturers used to send individual sale vendors to the store, but as Sueoka laments, “now they’re all gone. It’s a thing of the past; everything is through the wholesaler.”

In fact, many are things of the past.

“When I was a kid running around in the store, I used to call my mom’s workers aunties and uncles. Now, my young employees call me auntie,” shares Kawaguchi.

As one of the last family-owned markets on the island, Sueoka’s was a hallmark of a bygone era.

Thus, when Sueoka speaks with sadness about the changes to his family’s business, he also speaks to the changes to all the island’s small businesses that were once his contemporaries.

“It is sad that all of our businesses are going,” he shares. “For us, we were so much a part of the community. It’s a lot less personal (now), but that’s the way it is, with these big chains coming in — a lot less personal.”

A few years back, Sueoka and Kawaguchi hired consultants from O‘ahu to advise them in running a family business.

“We weren’t planning to sell; we just wanted advice on what we should do,” Sueoka says.

The consultants asked the cousins what their endgame was. Was there anybody upand-coming who could take over the store?

The reality was they did not have a plan. None of their children wanted to take over the store, and none of the owners could afford to buy the others out. Together with the consultants, they looked at everything — the finances, the age of the store, the money that would have to go into renovating — and, in the end, decided the best thing was to sell.

“It’s like when the kids inherit the house and they cannot buy the other siblings out, so they end up selling the whole thing,” Sueoka explains. “When I look at the decision we made, we looked at everything. I’m comfortable with it and I think this was the best thing to do.”

The cousins agree it was the best decision, but not necessarily the easiest.

“I was telling my sister how difficult it is for me to let go,” admits Kawaguchi. “I still go to the store at 5 a.m., even though I don’t have to. My sister reminded me that it felt like our mom, who previously managed the store, had three children — the two of us and the store, so in a way, it’s like losing a sibling. That’s how committed the whole family was. It was a very personal relationship that was a huge part of our lives. The workers are like family to me.”

This is the first time in the Sueoka clan’s lives that the store is not a part of their daily existence.

“I’ll miss the customers telling me what a nice store we have, how friendly and helpful the staff is, and how they’ve been shopping at the store for many years,” Kawaguchi says. “As I look around the store, I see friends meeting friends. People who moved away come into the store to find a connection because their grandparents used to shop here. I like to think we are a gathering place.”

For Sueoka, it hasn’t quite hit him yet.

“It’s kind of sad, but it’s also kind of a relief having the weight and responsibility off my shoulders,” he says. “I feel a lot lighter now.

My plans for retirement are babysitting my three grand-kids, and I got my Bon dance and my yoga to keep me busy.”

As for her retirement plans, Kawaguchi just laughs.

“My friend, who lives in California, is making plans for us to go travel the world,” she says.

To the island they served and the people that embraced them for over a century, the Sueoka family offers a heartfelt mahalo.

“Thank you for your patronage these past 100 years. We couldn’t have done it without the help and support of the community,” they add.

Sueoka Market is located at 5392 Kōloa Road.