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Susan Kang Sunderland

The Foodland Way: Food, Family, Friends

Foodland celebrates the 65th anniversary of the first store’s opening at Market City on a wing and a prayer and a loan. The store name was based on it offering more food than anyone in Hawaii had ever seen under one roof. It changed shopping in the Islands forever. Still owned and operated by the Sullivan family, Foodland is going strong with a philosophy that emphasizes food, family and friends

Food, Family & Friends. Three simple words, but when interpreted with what’s unique about Hawaii, they take on a special meaning. Foodland uses the phrase as a powerful brand to distinguish itself in the local market. In the process, “Food, Family & Friends” has become a living legacy of Foodland founder Maurice J. “Sully” Sullivan.

As Foodland observes its 65th anniversary, we examine how this three-word branding plays into the success and sustainability of Hawaii’s largest locally owned supermarket chain.

We find that “food, family, flair” as well as “food, family, fundamentals” and “food, family, fresh ideas” all are parts of the Foodland formula.

“When people think of Foodland, it’s not only the services we offer and the things we have in our stores, but also the feeling you get from our people who care about the community and customers,” says Jenai Wall, Sully’s daughter and Foodland’s chairwoman and chief executive officer.

Sister Kitty Wo, Foodland vice president, agrees. “Dad would be proud that Jenai has sustained the company and done it in a way that honors his legacy and is true to what he set out to do, especially in giving to the community,” she says.

Sully built Foodland, not from the executive suite, but at the front lines with customers and suppliers. He managed by walking around. The soul of Foodland emanated from the sales floor.

We went to his favorite place, the aisles of the supermarkets, to be inspired for this story. We metaphorically walked in his shoes to understand his passion for serving customers, motivating employees and supporting the community.

What we discovered is the heartbeat of Hawaii retailing. While times have changed the mechanics and technology of retailing, it has not changed the bonds of shopkeepers and customers.

The essence of that abiding relationship fortifies Foodland’s rank as Hawaii’s Best Grocery Store, as voted by Honolulu Star-Advertiser readers.

Logically, it begins with food.

FOOD

The grocery business is said to be one of the toughest retail ventures because of intense competition and the changing landscape of consumer shopping. Traditional supermarkets now compete with supercenters such as Walmart and warehouse clubs like Costco for consumers’ food budgets.

Yet food is very primal, and if you become someone’s source of food, a strong bond exists. No one knows this better than the family-owned Foodland chain of 32 stores and 2,500 employees statewide.

The name Foodland originated in 1948 when Hawaii’s first supermarket opened at Market City, corner of Kapiolani Boulevard and Harding Avenue.

Family matriarch Joanna Sullivan recalls, “I wanted a name that would tell people exactly what we offered. It was going to be a place with lots of food – more than they had ever seen in one store – so the name Foodland seemed to make a lot of sense.”

When Foodland Market City made its debut in 1948, bread cost 14 cents a loaf and milk was 22 cents a quart. The store also was Hawaii’s first self-service model that Sully had seen at the first A&P supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1935.

Foodland was so successful that Sully and his mother-in-law See Goo “Mama” Lau opened a store a year for the next 10 years. In 1958, Sully married Mama Lau’s daughter Joanna. They had four children: Kitty, Jenai, Colleen and Patrick.

Foodland, flagship of the Sullivan Family of Companies, continues the entrepreneurial spirit of its founder. It was the first to have bakery and deli departments, offering fresh baked goods and takeout meals. Today, there is a commissary known as the Sullivan Family Kitchen, headed by Grand Chef Keoni Chang, that produces bakery and deli products for an ever-expanding menu of prepared foods.

Freshness and local ingredients are keynotes of the operation, also touted at the seafood and poke counters at Foodland. This has become a destination in itself, where islanders relish 24 varieties of marinated raw fish, including its best-selling Poke Bowl with rice.

The strategic alignment of Foodland with local products brings it close to local producers and farmers.

Gary Maunakea-Forth, managing director and co-founder of MA’O Organic Farms in Waianae, says, “We refer to Foodland as a co-producer because they have become a partner in the production process. The relationship is more than just commerce; we’re both in a struggle to keep local agriculture viable, to feed a local population hungry for organic foods, and we rely on Foodland to tell our story to customers.

“Foodland, from Jenai Wall to its produce buyers, really seems to get it and has helped us to learn the ins and outs of selling in a retail environment.”

Foodland employees volunteer each quarter at MA’O GIVE days (Get Involved, Volunteer Environmentally) working side by side with young farmers to harvest crops.

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