A Tamura’s Tradition
A Tamura’s Tradition
The Tamura ohana has been in the grocery business on Oahu since the 1920s. Here, Herbert Tamura and son Glenn, who steered the company into wine and fine foods, prepare to celebrate the arrival of 2011 in taste and style
It started in Waianae in the 1920s with an ethnic market. Today, Tamura’s is party food and beverage central
As the people of Oahu prepare for New Year’s Eve celebrations, many will be filing into Tamura’s Fine Wines and Liquors, Oahu’s one-stop party shop for the past 15 years.
“When we opened you only had a couple people dabbling in it, R. Field and Fujioka’s,” says Glenn Tamura, president of Tamura Enterprises, which now owns three grocery stores, three fine wine shops and a warehouse distribution center.
“When I got in I brought a different aspect to it. We have more of a supermarket setup – smaller markups, higher volume – whereas the other ones were more like gift shops with really trendy items. We carry everything from the $3 wine to the $1,000 wine. Plus, in our supermarkets, the top sellers were always beer and poke, so I figured let’s stick them in our wine shops too.”
Not only do they carry Tamura’s famous poke, but also cigars, top end whiskeys and gourmet cheeses that will make one a most desirable holiday guest. The name Tamura’s has become synonymous with good booze, but it was not always that way.
For the older generations in the Islands, the name is more associated with their original supermarket in Waianae opened by Glenn’s great-grandfather Maketaro Tamura in the 1920s. They were known for catering to the varied ethnic food needs of the people of the island, carrying pig’s blood, sliced takuan, won bok kim chee and pork lau lau. For three generations, they met the dietary needs of the Leeward side, but it looked like it would end there as young Glenn had other ambitions.
“I wanted to go to school, and first I wanted to be an engineer,” recalls Tamura, “but Dad said, ‘I know you are not going to live behind a desk ‘cause you’re not that kind of person, you like to get out there and meet people.’ He said I was going into the wrong industry, I should go into business, I was born with my mouth first, I’m a people person, and sitting behind a desk is not going to make me happy. Now, I’m kinda glad my dad twisted my arm little bit.”
So, upon getting his MBA from the University of Hawaii, he went on to the University of Southern California for a specialized supermarket retail program, and while the program surely increased his acumen, it was the experiences outside of school that dictated the course of his life.
“When I was at USC, on the weekends we would travel,” says Tamura, who grew up in Waianae but graduated from Mid-Pac, “go to different bars, different liquor stores. And I was like, wow, we don’t got all these box liquor stores and fine wine shops in Hawaii with their cognacs, whiskeys and cigars. But being in a fraternity, that’s how I started drinking, and I was exposed to all that on the Mainland. So I came home and thought it was a good idea, a niche that we didn’t really have here.”
He brought the idea home to his father, Herbert, who balked at the idea at first.
“I kept bugging him, but he doesn’t drink so he didn’t see the opportunity,” says Tamura. “But as he started turning over the store to me in ‘95, I said I’m going to do it. So we leased a property in Kakaako, got three employees in the store and we just kept getting busier and busier.”
From there it took about 18 months to locate and equip their flagship store on Waialae. Once filled with product, however, you need to equip your staff with the knowledge to sell it. So every month they have experts come in and sample the staff – one month it’s sake, the next, single barrel scotches. This keeps the staff sharp and smiling, and leaves Tamura with no shortage of applications.
“Everybody is like ‘can I come work for you?’ because we are drinking for free,” says Tamura, who claims to be a connoisseur of everything in his stores. “But it’s like candy, right? Eating too much candy is not good, a little candy is good, but after awhile you can get burned out.”
He understands and loves his industry. Getting out to the bars and socializing is all part of building his business, and he wants his staff out there too, as long as they can answer the bell when it comes time for work.
“I tell my guys, I don’t care how late you stay out. If you can work the next day that’s fine with me,” says Tamura, who reserves his Friday and Saturday nights for research. “But if you stay out late and drink and can’t work the next day, then we have a problem.
“This is our business, we do what we love to do. In the business you gotta be out there. If your name is not out there, you got to build your brand so that when people hear the name Tamura’s they know what we are about.”
The other side of the business is the serving of these products, and Tamura originally looked at opening restaurants as well. But after his experience running a little drive-in, found he was better served dancing with who brought him.
“I found that it was so labor-intensive and I am only one person, that finally my father said, ‘you spread yourself too thin, you’re not going to be good at anything, you’ll be jack of all trades, master of none,’” says Tamura. “So I pulled back to focus on what I’m good at. Eventually, it’s always good to have a restaurant where I can hang my hat and say that’s my restaurant.”
But it is not all about the party with Tamura. Every year since 2001 they have held a golf tournament to raise money for Tamura’s Charitable Foundation. This organization looks to fill in the cracks in the public school system, buying up the rudimentary supplies like pens, pencils and papers and distributing them to the schools that need them.
Revolutionizing the wine industry in Hawaii and aiding in charity events has allowed Tamura to make a name for himself and not just be stuck behind the loving shadow of his father.
“I didn’t want to be known as Herbert’s son, I wanted to develop my own thing,” says Tamura, whose father still stops by all the stores to greet employees and check out operations. “So I started expanding it out, and he reminded me, ‘I don’t care how many stores you build. I am only going to help you and I’m not going to get back into the day-to-day.’
“He is still such a dad, though. Every day he still comes in and asks, ‘what are you doing about this?’ and I tell him, ‘I got it, Dad, when have I ever let you down?’ But he will always be that way. I’m sure I’ll be that way too.”
This concern for the business runs deep in the Tamura blood. Grandma Tsuruko, now 99 years old, still calls Herbert every day asking about the store.
“She’s still sharp as a pencil,” says Tamura of his matriarch.
Next up for Tamura? He would like to see a store serving every community on Oahu, and with the recent opening of the Kalaeloa location, Tamura feels it is time to start looking at Neighbor Island locations.
The business is not without its costs. Tamura works 12-plus hours, six days a week, often working so late that he actually had a queen-size bed put in his office so he can save time on going home. But for him, there is nothing else he would rather do.
“I’m married to the store; I love what I do,” says Tamura.
“A lot of guys come Sunday night are dreading work on Monday. Me, I can’t wait to get to work, try my new ideas, talk to my managers, see where we faltered and make the adjustments.
“People ask, ‘Why you still in the business? Why don’t you retire?’ Once you get into something you love, you can never retire. As long as I am having fun, as long as we are still moving forward, I’m not going to retire.”