If you drive down Kaneohe town's main street, Kamehameha Highway, look makai. Just about in the middle of this main strip, you'll see a little grocery store with a big sign that reads Family Grocery Store. It's not just a name, it's an invitation to be part of their ohana.
Owners Gilbert and Susan Au Yeung opened the little convenience store in 2003, a lifelong dream of Gilbert's to be his own boss. Gilbert worked at Long's Drugs for 19 years, and was a manager at the Bishop Street location when he left.
Gilbert and Susan Au Yeung
"Since I was young, I've always wanted to own my own business. I don't know why. I just did," he shrugs from his makeshift desk in a corner of the store, where he set up his computer so he can tally inventory.
Susan tried to dissuade his entrepreneurial desires. "My sister and I owned and operated Kin Sun Restaurant in Waipahu for years. It's hard! Really hard work! In the first few months, I worked 7 a.m. to midnight. Even after things stabilized, I always worked seven days a week," she says of her years as a restaurateur. Prior to that, she worked at Empress Restaurant, Kin Wah, and Won Kee Seafood Restaurant.
Gilbert couldn't be deterred. At first, it was a one-man operation, while Susan still waitressed and took care of their son, Calvin.
Gilbert set up the shop with local snacks, cold drinks, ice cream, basic sundries, and a lot of Chinese items. The couple is from Hong Kong and maintains strong ties to the local Chinese community.
Because Susan is an excellent cook and baker, she makes and packages snacks in a commercial kitchen. They sell her Chinese pretzels, crack seed, almond cookies, peanut candy, and macadamia nut candy in their store, but also deliver it to Longs Drugs, Foodland, and Times Supermarkets across the state.
Susan and me
That's why she now works at the store, too. "In 2007, Gilbert said, 'Why don't you come help me? Watch the store while I make deliveries.' I was unsure at first because I can't stand being in one place for the whole day. I worked at restaurants and I like to walk around and talk to people. But I gave it a try because he needed me, and it wasn't so bad," reflects Susan.
Gilbert is on the road about five hours a day delivering their goods. He jokes he could get a second job as a taxi driver, he knows Oahu so well.
Susan tends the shop, and found her days immediately filled with nonstop tasks: cleaning, stocking shelves, taking inventory, packing the goods for delivery, ordering products, and working the register. Susan also found she was still able to put her strength and passion to work: her love of people.
"I know most of the people who come in. I know their orders. I pull the items when I see them come in. Gilbert tells me I spoil the customers. But I like people. I like talking to them," she smiles.
"Oh, he's a regular," she gestures of Anson Martin as he walks in the door. Martin has been coming for about eight years, he says, because "it's convenient, centrally located, and cheaper."
When he was working in Kaneohe, he came every day for his lunch of spam or noodles, and a Pepsi. Now that he's moved to Waipahu, he's a less frequent visitor, but makes it a point to stop in whenever he's in town.
"They're like Mama and Papa. They take care of their customers like children. She really keeps track of everyone. She always asks how is my mother, my brother, my job," he says.
Susan adds, "When I haven't seen Anson for a while, I will ask his brother how he is. I check up on them!"
Customers file in just about every ten minutes, so we stop the interview constantly while she sells her goods and makes sure to get their daily update.
Annette Ng comes in next. "Oh, she's a regular," identifies Susan. I quickly came to realize that would be how every person coming through the door would be prefaced.
"She's friendly and down-to-earth, and you don't get that at the other larger stores," shares Ng. "Plus, this store carries items I can't get at the chain stores." She's buying a ginger tea drink today that seems like something you'd definitely find in Chinatown - or in a small, mom-and-pop store like this.
Alina Couch is another regular. Susan pulls Couch's regular order off the shelf the moment she sees her come in, and it's ready in the ten seconds it takes for Couch to saunter to the cash wrap. "I like that this store is family run. It's convenient, it has what I need, and I like this lady and her family. They're friendly, accessible, and always helpful," Couch expresses.
Susan knows everyone. "They tell me everything. They become friends. Sometimes I'll talk to one customer right up until another one needs to be rung up," she tells me. She hears about births and deaths, hires and fires, marriages, affairs, divorces, and everything in between. It's the Susan soap opera.
A little boy comes in with coins to buy a liter of soda. Susan counts the change and lets him leave with the drink, but calls after him, "Tell Auntie she's 35 cents short." I offer to cover his bill, but she says it's OK. They have a running tab.
Gilbert loves the store so much, he has no plans to retire. Work is his hobby. Work is his life.
"What's number one in your life?" Susan asks me. We agree that for both of us, it's our family.
"Not him!" chides his wife of 37 years, shooting him a look across the counter, softened with a smile. "The store is his baby! The store is his Number One!"
He bashfully smiles and chuckles. He works 12 to 17 hours a day, six days a week. "Yeah, I love it. I don't know what I'd do with myself if I didn't have it."
That's OK. Their many loyal customers would probably say the same thing.
Family Grocery Store - 45-1127 Kamehameha Hwy in Kaneohe - (808) 235-0028. Hours: Monday - Saturday 9:15 a.m. - 6:30 p.m., Sunday closed. Cash only.