You hear the words “Hawaiian roll,” and your senses go into overdrive. Your mind’s eye sees the white, fluffy bread bursting from a round metal tin. You feel the slight pull of the almost foamy bread as you tear a piece from it — no, not a piece. A hunk. A fistful of what can only be some fantastic new state of matter. Solid. Liquid. Gas. King’s Hawaiian bread. Is your mouth watering right now? I know you can taste it. I bet you can even feel the soft resistance of the bread as your teeth sink into the softball-sized portion in your hands. Did you keep track of the plastic bag tie to keep your tin of bread fresh? Doesn’t matter. To open King’s Hawaiian bread is to say, “Oh, just one more piece won’t hurt…well, just one more…another…well, we’re this far into it, may as well commit to the act…”
Hawaiian bread in any form — roll, loaf, bun — is the culinary equivalent of poetry.
It’s also a litmus test for your extended family. If you’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner and nobody shows up with at least one tin of the stuff, or the rolls — something — then you were born into the wrong family or didn’t properly vet your future in-laws. It’s the sort of oversight that should cause you, just before the meal is served, to take the turkey from the oven, golden brown and hot, juices dripping from the bird, and carry it on a platter to the dinner table, Charles Dickens style, for everyone to oooh and ahhh over, and then after saying, “Happy Thanksgiving, one and all!” you carry the platter out the front door and throw the turkey into the yard for the dogs to eat. Then you shout at your family to bring the right bread next year, or don’t bother coming at all. You’re not thankful for any of them, now get your stuff and get out. Thanksgiving’s canceled.
It’s that good.
To tell the history of Hawaiian bread is to tell the history of King’s Hawaiian …
if only because Robert Taira, who founded the company, invented Hawaiian bread in the first place. “Robert had attended culinary school on the mainland, came home to Hawaii, and in the 1950s, founded a little place called Robert’s Bakery in a little town called Hilo, on the Big Island,” says John Linehan, the president of King’s Hawaiian. The young cook had tried Portuguese stone bread, which he really liked, but wanted to improve upon. “Stone bread is a little bit like the sweet bread, but with one major difference: unlike Hawaiian bread, which is as fluffy on the second day as on the first, Portuguese stone bread hardens overnight. Like, really hardens. Pound-nails-with-it hardens, which is where it gets its name.”
Robert wanted to give the bread a longer shelf life, and wanted to do so without adding chemicals or preservatives. He succeeded, and Hawaiian bread was born. It was an instant success on the island, and Robert soon outgrew his little store in Hilo. He relocated the business to a bigger place, on King Street in Honolulu, Oahu. (Though it is commonly believed that the name of the company, King’s Hawaiian, is a reference to King Kamehameha, that he offered bread to the gods, or some such thing, the “King” part of the name simply comes from the street where the company relocated. They were too big by then to keep the name Robert’s Bakery.)
In the 1960s, Hawaiian restaurants and hotels carried King’s Hawaiian bread, and when tourists tried the bread, they had the same reaction we do: They wanted to know what it was and where they could get more of it. On the last day of vacations, the departing visitors would drop by the bakery on King Street and fill bags with the addictive bread. Robert and his wife, Tsuneko, started putting mail order certificates in the shopping bags for the tourists to take with them. The bread, as it turned out, was so popular that the cards started being mailed back to Hawaii from Japan, Latin America, Europe, all over Asia — all over the world. The tourists, now at home and hungry for the best taste of the islands, would order more, and some for their friends too. This meant that some people were gladly paying as much as $50 per loaf because of air freight prices.
“The bread was so popular, in fact, that because of those little mail order certificates, King’s Hawaiian became the biggest customer of the United States Postal Service in the state of Hawaii, and the company was dropping off one or two truckloads of bread to the airport every morning,” says Linehan. Which is how everyone heard about King’s Hawaiian bread. Not through a major marketing campaign or some splashy commercial during the Super Bowl. For the first 64 years of the company’s history, they never spent a dime on advertising. Everyone who ate their bread (and subsequently became obsessed with it) heard about King’s Hawaiian bread through word of mouth: Someone brought a loaf or rolls to a party. Someone mentioned this incredible bread they tried on vacation. Someone brought a gift back with them for a friend.
You might be wondering about the tin, for which the bread has become so famous. When Robert first started making the bread, it was several times more expensive to produce than a standard loaf of bread because more ingredients were involved. Bread is basically flour, yeast, salt, water and, oftentimes, some preservatives and chemicals. But King’s Hawaiian bread requires, additionally, butter, milk and sugar. In the low-margin world of bread sales, this was a serious problem, and Robert faced a dilemma: How could he put his expensive (though superior) loaves of bread next to the other, cheaper brands of bread in grocery stores? His solution: sell them in those little tins, which made the bread look more expensive, and made the slightly higher price more palatable to shoppers. “That’s why he did it,” says Linehan. “So it would look and feel more like an unusual product than just another loaf of bread.”
In 1977, the company opened its first plant in Torrance, California to better supply the mainland. The bakery, 24,000 square feet in area, is still operating today. In 2003, the company opened a second plant in the California town — this one 100,000 square feet larger than the original. In 2011, the company expanded eastward yet again, opening the first of what would be two plants in Oakwood, Georgia. The reason for all this expansion? Demand and a desire to bring Hawaiian bread to the entire U.S., and then to the world. “We wrote a strategic plan in 2006, and we wrote a mission for the company: to deliver irresistible — not good or delicious, but irresistible — original Hawaiian foods with Aloha Spirit that families love, every day, everywhere,” says Linehan. “The decision to use the word ‘everywhere’ meant global. At the time, we were only sold in the United States. Today, we are in 16 countries.”
Despite its exponential growth — or perhaps because of it — King’s Hawaiian remains a family-owned company, with three generations of the Taira family delivering that irresistible Hawaiian food. Robert’s son, Mark, took over as CEO when he was 26 years old. Like his father, Mark was born in Hawaii, and the company remains devoted to its place of origin. “You’ll start to see a lot of new products in the years ahead,” says Linehan. “We invest in a lot of small food & beverage companies in Hawaii. We support some of the culinary schools there, and other efforts, philanthropically.” Seeking to make Hawaiian food a worldwide sensation, when its smaller affiliates do well in Hawaii, the company brings them to the mainland with an eye on even bigger horizons.
King’s Hawaiian is also concerned about Hawaii’s farmers, who have seen better days; 90% of the food eaten on the islands is shipped in from elsewhere. “Agriculture really has to come back to Hawaii,” says Linehan. “If we found a brand, and it did well in Hawaii and we thought we could take it mainland, what we would do is take a percentage of the profits that we make and put it back into a nonprofit that we’ve established there to help the Hawaiian food & beverage community, because there’s a lot of great innovation in Hawaii.”
The company keeps a close eye on how people are eating its bread. A lot of it is just eaten plain, as a snack. Social media has revealed such creative uses of the bread in recipes as French toast, sandwiches and sliders. “It makes unbelievably good bread pudding,” Linehan says. “Once you have it with our bread, you’re never going to want to have bread pudding again unless it’s made with King’s Hawaiian.” To that end, the company has more products on the shelf than just the bread in the round tin. Their most successful line of food is actually dinner rolls. They also have hamburger and hot dog buns, slider rolls and mini sub rolls.
“Hawaiian bread has a cotton candy texture to it — a smooth, creamy, rich texture. The sweetness is there but it’s not too sweet. It is just enough so that you really get the taste. And if you eat it with something savory, like turkey or ham or a hot dog, the sweet and savory really work well together on your palate. Am I making you hungry?” Linehan asks, laughing. Yes, he is.