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Interview with Courtney Taira of King’s Hawaiian

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I think I have mentioned before that my Mom’s side of the family are Portuguese immigrants with family from the Azores Islands. In the San Francisco Bay Area there was (I am not sure how large it is now) a huge Portuguese community and in particular Portuguese Catholic. Every town had a St. Anthony’s Portuguese Catholic Association and a hall.

Portuguese Holy Ghost Festa
Portuguese Holy Ghost Festa. Photo credit: Valley Community Newspapers

Those halls were magical places where people who sometimes didn’t feel like they belonged in their new home could gather to speak Portuguese and eat Portuguese food. There were celebrations called festas with parades and music.

My Mom and all my Aunties were either queens or princesses and cousins too. There were sopas (pronounced soupish) feeds (here is a really great post from Rowdy Chow Girl on what exactly that is) and a great recipe from Kitchen Getaway as well). My Great Uncles were usually the ones that made it in several of the communities. They were known for it just like one of my Aunties was known for her malasadas.

Portuguese Sopas
Portuguese Sopas. Photo credit: Nanci Grossi

Growing up military I didn’t live near my grandparents so whenever we home for visits it was magical to go to the festas in the summer. If we were visiting in the winter it didn’t matter because there was always a big pot of beans, a huge pot of sopas, linguiça sandwiches and sweet rolls. Every dinner, and especially holiday meals, there were sweet rolls and the only brand I can ever remember is King’s Hawaiian.

I never knew how much my recent trips to Hawaii would bring me back to my past. The sense of community that my grandparents and parents generations found in St. Anthony’s is exactly the feeling of ohana that exists in the Hawaiian culture.

The Hawaiian culture is a mixture of many different cultures – South Pacific, European, Japanese, they took the best from everyone. There is a large Portuguese influence in the food and breakfasts like I had at the Hilo Hawaiian are like tiny visits from my grandparents.

Courtney Taira, granddaughter of King’s Hawaiian founder, Robert Taira is the guardian of her grandfather’s legacy and when given the opportunity to interview Courtney, I jumped on the chance. Her family’s products have been on my family’s tables for many generations and I couldn’t wait to meet her.

Photo credit: King’s Hawaiian

I had structured questions, but Courtney and I freestyled it, so I am going to chunk the interview up in a few sections.

Early Years of King’s Hawaiian

King’s Hawaiian was started in Hilo in 1950 by Robert Taira. (Having spent a little time in Hilo this past March, I can tell you its tiny!) Mr. Taira was neighbors with a Portuguese family who of course made homemade Portuguese sweet bread which he absolutely loved. So when Robert went to baking school he worked on perfecting the sweet roll, as most homemade versions become very dry the next day (think brick!). He worked on it and work on it and finally perfected a recipe that would stay soft for several days and the rest is history!

Photo credit: King’s Hawaiian

Robert quickly grew out of his Robert’s Bakery space (which still exists today as a bakery owned by a lovely Chinese family with a lot of the original equipment) and moved to King’s Street in Honolulu (Oahu) to build his business. He opened a bakery and cafe and it was the first bakery/restaurant combination on the island. As a family business, everyone worked together and everyone needed to eat, so by adding a restaurant to his bakery, Robert could conveniently feed his family and others as well. Mr. Taira was a big supporter of the community around him, something that King’s Hawaiian still continues today.

Moving to the Mainland

There are a lot of Hawaiians in the Los Angeles area and a whole bunch of mainlanders started hearing about the bakery in Oahu. They would come and buy a product and take it back home with them. In the Hawaiian culture, this is known as omiyage, little gifts from a trip for friends and family at home. People started requesting product via mail order asking Courtney’s grandmother to ship them to them all over the country. Courtney’s grandfather quickly realized that his product had a lot of potential on the mainland.

So in the 70’s he moved King’s Hawaiian to Torrance, California where they are still headquartered today. He built the first manufacturing plant which is still operating seven days a week. He opened a restaurant (there is now a second one) and two bakeries (with two more now in Atlanta).

Kings Hawaiian Mark Taira
Courtney’s Dad Mark Taira. photo credit: Discover Nikkei

Courtney was raised like a Hawaiian and eats all the local dishes you find in Hawaii. She feels very blessed to be part of the Hawaiian culture although she didn’t grow up there. Courtney feels that she grew up more Hawaiian than a lot of her counterparts as all her family moved together, all worked together, and went to school together and celebrated their heritage fastidiously, just like most immigrants do. Just like my grandparents did.

Food Truck Sweetheart

In my opinion, the undisputed birthplace of food trucks is L.A., and food truck chefs know King’s. It was the sweet roll of choice in my family’s household, but we were Portuguese so it was in the blood (!), it feels like since the “invention” of sliders that King’s Hawaiian is ubiquitous! Courtney attributes that to King’s Hawaiian’s quality. It is consistently good, stays fresh, and tastes great. Lots of things go wrong in food trucks (mechanical, parking, permits, people) you got to be able to count on your ingredients. The father of the modern food truck scene, Roy Choi is a big fan of King’s. People look to him to set the example and his use of King’s has been emulated all over the country.

Roy Choi. Photo credit: Sprudge

King’s Hawaiian is more than just the holder of stuff (when’s the last time you raved about the bun when you at your hamburger?) it really is one of the key ingredients, the sweetness adds something to the dish. Chef after chef have told Courtney that they have tested other rolls and breads, but they always come back to King’s.

King’s even got a by-name call out, the only one, in the Jon Favreau movie Chef (you have to see this movie!). As the culinary consultant on the film, Roy Choi made sure that King’s was the slider bun of choice. Turns out Jon Favreau’s son was already a huge fan!

Photo credit: King’s Hawaiian

They launched their own special food truck this past August in Honolulu. It is super high-tech with two flat-screen TVs that is very interactive, just use the hashtag #JHfoodtruck and you will see your photo come up on the screen! The truck is partnered with KCC which is the number one culinary program on the island where all the big chefs have come out of. All the truck’s proceeds get donated back to KCC and other community programs.

Courtney-Taira-Kings-Hawaiian Food Truck
Photo credit: King’s Hawaiian

The truck is currently in Hawaii but coming back to the mainland for several upcoming events including the Super Bowl!

Courtney’s Pick

Food is a BIG component of Hawaiian culture. Food is everything to them, so you know I had to ask Courtney about some of her favorites! When she visits Oahu (and she is there now for Fashion Week!) her favorites are Alan Wong’s on King Street which is very close to the original King’s Bakery. It serves very Hawaiian style, local food like Opakapaka, poke, and opihi. For poke, she also loves Ono Seafood (747 Kapahulu Ave, near Leonard’s).

Ono Seafood Poke
Ono Seafood Poke. Photo credit: Saving and Savoring

My current favorite way to eat a King’s Hawaiian sweet roll is with Kahlua Pork and a crunchy/spicy dill pickle.

Courtney’s favorite dish uses the round sweet bread, it’s white chocolate bread pudding that looks decadent! The recipe is on the website and the photo is of the one Courtney made!

Courtney’s white chocolate bread pudding. Photo credit: King’s Hawaiian

Another favorite is cheesy bread. Her family makes this with spaghetti. It’s King’s Hawaiian dinner rolls with cheese, mayo a little bit of bacon, and chives for color. Then toast in-oven and serve.

I have to say a big THANK YOU to Courtney for participating in this interview, we had such a great conversation, there was actually more but I couldn’t cover it all. She is as kind and gracious as every other Hawaiian I’ve met, plus being such a huge foodie, I think we could have talked for hours! King Hawaiian has a great blog and social media presence including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest. Their truck has its own Twitter handle.

[This is NOT a sponsored post, I was NOT compensated in any way shape or form.]

How about you? Do you have a King’s Hawaiian story? Favorite way to eat them? Favorite slider? Do tell!

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Interview with Courtney Taira of King’s Hawaiian

Currently November 2014
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