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Interview with Courtney Taira of King’s Hawaiian

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.

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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.

Courtney-Taira-Kings-Hawaiian
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!

opening-first-bakery-shop
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.

RoyChoiCoffeePortrait
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!

Courtney-Taira-Kings-Hawaiian-Jon-Favreau
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!

White-Chocolate-Chip-Bread-Pudding
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

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103 Comments

  1. SO fun! I saw the feature of the Kings Hawaiian on Food Network(?) once, and it just looked so delicious! It was one of my favorites in college. Affordable and tasty! <3

  2. I’ve eaten at a LOT of food trucks in my day, so I’m sure I’ve eaten a LOT of King’s! Now I’ll know to take notice of those little slider buns. 🙂 OH, and that white chocolate bread pudding looks divine.

  3. This was such a fun post to read. We have had King’s Hawaiian at our family table for as long as I can remember – the holidays wouldn’t be the same without it. And it definitely my favorite bread for a slider. I love the sound of that bread pudding, too – so decadent!

  4. I can’t believe they’re in Torrance. That’s not far from me. Now I need to take a field trip. Thanks for sharing the back story on this fabulous sweet and delicious bun!

  5. OMG this whole post just made me hungry. That King Hawaiian Pork looks phenomenal. So did the sopa. They seriously have some of the best bread ever. What a great interview with some of the family. Great post!

  6. Loved this post, Andi! My family has long adored King’s Hawaiian bread–we put a Southern twist on it by using the pieces to make fried chicken sliders at family picnics. They’re always a huge hit! I love that the company is still so focused on family. 🙂

  7. Confession: I went to business school and I’m a nerd about business stories. Thank you for sharing a really fun read!

  8. This is an absolutely interesting and informative post. Thank you for sharing! I must say I love King’s Hawaiian Bread 🙂

  9. I love that little insight to your family and how it ties into this brand nostalgically. I loved the movie Chef, so of course now next time I need sweet rolls, I’ll make sure to buy King’s Hawaiian. 😉

  10. In Canada we don’t have King’s Hawaiian products. I remember my first trip down to BlogHer in 2011 – it was in San Diego. In our goodie bags we had those delicious hawaiian buns. Now that I live here in California, I should really buy some. I remember how awesome they were.

  11. How awesome that you got to interview Courtney! Unfortunately we don’t get Kings Hawaiian over here in NZ but I must look out for it when we go to Hawaii early next year!

  12. That must be a west coast thing, cause i never heard of it here on the east coast.. But from what you are saying it sounds amazing.

  13. Wow! What a phenomenal post full of so much history! 🙂 Also – it made me very hungry! I love all of your photos – how awesome that you have such an amazing past with such strong family values?

  14. Ok– hungry now….. so cool that you were able to interview her! Nice job. My favorite way to eat them is plain. They are so tasty.

  15. King’s Hawaiian is always a staple in my house. It’s good on anything and now I love that they have hamburger buns! Hope I get a chance to try their food truck when they get to the mainland.

  16. Thanks for sharing details on my favorite bread to serve with dinner! Now I want to make that white chocolate bread pudding!

  17. What a cool restaurant. i wish there were restaurants like this where I live. For now I’ll check out the recipes.

  18. What a great post! I used to love, love eating King Hawaiian dinner rolls at home. Unfortunately, I’ve never found any in South Korea but you’ve reminded me of what I want to do as soon as I get back home.

  19. I have never really been much of a fan of bread, but I’ll admit that their bread is delicious, especially their rolls!

  20. We love Kings Hawaiian bread. I’ve got a delicious spinach dip recipe that is perfect with it.

  21. I LOVE King’s Hawaiian bread. I could seriously eat a whole package by myself in one sitting lol! Thanks for sharing I now want to go out and buy some.

  22. King’s Hawaiian rolls are a constant fixture at our dinner table. It was neat to see the history behind this! And those dishes look amazing! I’m hungry now! 🙂

  23. I love King’s Hawaiian bread. It is soooooooooooo good. I use the buns, biscuits bread everything. Hubby loves the sandwich ones. They’re small enough, but filling for his lunch and he has more time then. Love the wedding picture too. How neat. Thanks for sharing.

  24. I love coming to your posts for my spot of culture and knowledge. What an amazing story and family and I love that Courtney is continuing on the family trade and making new additions. The food truck is so cool!

    Katie <3

  25. It was great to learn about some of your history and culture. I’m not familiar with Kings Hawaiian but the food looks delicious.

    1. @Erica, you should check them out, they are in a lot of grocery stores in the U.S. I am sure you will love them!

  26. What a great interview! Thanks for sharing! I used to eat kings hawaiian all the time before I had to stop eating gluten.

  27. I love King’s Hawaiian rolls! & I almost feel like I’m in some sort of special club now that I know so much of the background about them. Of course you’re in the much cooler club since you did the interview. 😉

    1. @Melissa, Courtney does events all over the country and is very accessible, you don’t have to be in a cool club, but I am definitely with you on loving to know the story behind the brand.

  28. I’ve never heard of King’s Hawaiian before, I don’t think they sell here in Ireland. The food looks absolutely delicious though 🙂

    1. @Fi, probably the closest to it would be found in Portugal as their origins are there. I once saw them in the American section of a grocery store aisle in France, so maybe you can check that area out of your market in Ireland.

  29. Mahalo for the awesome interview, Andi! We’d loved speaking with you and reading all of your blog posts. Keep up the great work!

  30. King’s Hawaiian rolls are sooo good! I saw a commercial for a sandwich at Arby’s that uses them and I’d like to try it. Love these rolls and what a cool thing to interview the daughter of the man who makes them!

    1. @Risa, that was part of the interview I couldn’t fit in, the Arby’s sandwich. The sweetness in the bread enhances Arby’s roast beef – bonus!

  31. Great post – I enjoyed seeing the photos. I LOVE King’s Hawaiian products…they are soooo soft and good. I especially like using the rolls to make sliders.

  32. Lucky you for getting to do this interview. I love Kings Hawaiian bread! It is so awesome as a sandwich or hamburger! Yummy!!

  33. Awesome post! i LOVE Kings Hawaiian products. My husband isn’t a big bread fan in general, so when I buy any of the Kings Hawaiian products I end up eating it all by myself…usually just plain…in a matter of days lol. The dinner rolls make a delightful breakfast 🙂

    1. @Shelby, that is what Lauriel was just saying and I was thinking you betcha – they sweet with salty bacon or linguica or sausage would be amazing!

  34. <3 <3 <3 !!!! I LOVE King's Hawaiian bread!!! I grew up with it as a child, and it was my favorite breakfast item, by far. I loved pulling it apart into airy, soft feathery pieces. Mmmm.. 🙂 All the manifestations – the circular loaf, the rolls, the sliced loaf – are awesome. And I can attest that it indeed makes an incredible bread pudding! Great interview, thanks for sharing such a lovely conversation and writing up a great post!

    xo,
    lauriel
    EyeForElegance.com

  35. Those sweet rolls are my favorite. I love eating those but I have to watch it because they don’t agree with my waist line. All the food in the post looked amazing.

    1. @Danielle, everything in moderation. When you do allow yourself to have them, what is your favorite way to eat them?

  36. I don’t buy anything but the King’s Hawaiian buns and rolls. In my opinion they the best in the world. Thanks for sharing.

  37. I am obsessed with seafood pokes! I just love the texture and the flavor, Bristol Farms has a really nice one. I grew up on Kings Hawaiian and to this day my family serves the bread with almost each meal. Thank you for the story behind the food 🙂

    1. @WinterWhite, thank YOU! I had never heard of Bristol Farms but I just looked up to see there is one right down the street from my office in San Francisco, I will definitely have to check that out! I feel it is more rewarding when you know a business is family run and you get to meet them!

  38. I love King’s Hawaiian bread. My very favorite is after Thanksgiving, with chunks of ham and a little mayo. I’m imagining King’s Hawaiian rolls with turkey right now too!

    1. @Katt, oh me too, me too! I also like hot turkey sandwiches with King’s Hawaiian on the bottom of a pile of turkey and stuffing and gravy….lots of gravy!

  39. I missed this post when you first published it. She’s so exotic and all that food so sweet, crispy, yummy. Beautiful, Andi. I love how you give space on your blog to all these adventurers!

  40. This was such an amazing post! I have always felt that Hawaii has such a rich and fascinating history. This caught my eye because my mom has always loved King’s Hawaiian products. I loved getting to learn their story, and I will be sure to pass this along to her.