Made for good times
Derek Kurisu, Hawai‘i Food Industry Association’s Hall of Fame inductee, marks 50-plus years in the food trade, where he’s spent his entire career doing what comes so easy: promoting all things local.
Whether he’s greeting employees and customers, joking around with chefs as emcee at the Made in Hawai‘i Festival or taking officials on tours of island farms, Derek Kurisu always appears to be having fun.
The executive vice president of KTA Super Stores on Hawai‘i Island is known for his exuberant personality and passionate promotion of all things locally grown and made.
It’s apparent on his voicemail, which plugs KTA’s private label — “Buy Mountain Apple products, please. Aloha!” — in the talks he gives to local business people and school students, and on his television shows Living in Paradise and Seniors Living in Paradise (channel 129 on Spectrum and streaming on YouTube) — which he mostly shoots, hosts and edits himself.
Both shows usually feature him cooking, enjoying a meal or extolling a new or longtime product or service.
Sometimes people walk over and tell him, “I heard your voice from the other aisle, and I knew it was you! I just had to come over and say hi.” Even the more reserved give in and flash a shaka for the camera.
Everyone gets swept up in the good mood.
You might begin to wonder if this even counts as work.
But in truth, Kurisu, who turned 71 earlier this month, has done much to positively influence Hawai‘i’s food and grocery industry.
In 1992, as the last sugar plantations on the Big Island were winding down, he helped KTA launch its Mountain Apple Brand, which is dedicated to locally grown and made products.
He recalls his boss at the time, KTA CEO Tony Taniguchi, telling him, “Derek, when the sugar plantations go down, you become obligated to help (the community) because they helped to build KTA to what it is today.”
At the time, Kurisu, who grew up in Hakalau — now a small, unincorporated community on the Hāmākua Coast, but once a thriving sugar plantation village — says he couldn’t imagine a Hawai‘i without sugar.
But Taniguchi’s prediction came to pass and then Taniguchi himself passed away.
Kurisu worked with his successor, Barry Taniguchi, to make things happen.
“I went out there to try to create new businesses,” he says of his early outreach on behalf of Mountain Apple Brand. “All the existing businesses, I went there to try to help them create products, (to) try to glue all of these food people together to become one big family.”
This isn’t as easy as it might sound. Some of these producers may have seen each other as competition or had conflicting interests. Kurisu had to get them to see the bigger picture — with sugar gone, the community needed other economic drivers — and convince them to seize the opportunity and work together.
“Till today, the label still survives and our company moved forward, really heavily, to support our local businesses and local people and local everything,” he says.
Mountain Apple Brand has since expanded to hundreds of Hawai‘i-made products, encompassing everything from milk and poi to beef and baked goods.
Beyond Hawai‘i Island, Kurisu has twice chaired the Hawai‘i Food Industry Association (first in 2006-2007, then in 2015-2016), making him just one of a handful of individuals to serve in that role more than once.
HFIA is the state’s leading voice for more than 200 retailers, manufacturers, distributors and brokers connected to Hawai‘i’s food industry.
“We’re competitors but we’re also focused on feeding Hawai‘i, we’re also focused on making food affordable and available and safe,” Kurisu says.
Under his leadership, HFIA launched its Legislative Talk Story and Pau Hana panel, a now annual event that connects lawmakers with food industry leaders on priority issues — plastic bag bans, minimum wage changes, even whether to allow water to be canned in the state.
Kurisu serves as the panel’s volunteer moderator. He’s also the longtime host of cooking demonstrations at HFIA’s Made in Hawai‘i Festival, which attracts thousands of shoppers every year.
According to HFIA officials, “Derek’s rapport with the chefs and enjoyment of the food engages the audience and allows them to share in the fun of Hawai‘i-made ingredients.”
Or, as Kurisu often jokes, it’s hard work sampling all the good food the islands have to offer but he’s willing to take the hit.
HFIA marked its 50th anniversary this year and it chose Kurisu as its 2022 Hall of Fame inductee. Officials cited his generous and inclusive nature and his willingness to lend a hand.
“It’s humbling to be part of the Hall of Fame because all the other people in there were amazing people,” Kurisu says.
Among them are the late Tony and Barry Taniguchi, his former bosses at KTA.
On the Shoulders of Giants
It’s impossible to overstate the impact KTA has had on Kurisu.
The family-owned and operated supermarket has been in business for 106 years; Kurisu has been with it for 54 of those years, working under four Taniguchi family CEOs.
He began as a bag boy at age 16. Back then, he says, the application wasn’t a form and an interview — it was whether you could carry a 100-pound bag of rice.
“My father used to make me train,” he recalls. “We used to buy the rice and I used to carry it at my house so when I turned 16 and I applied I could carry the rice. “I learned from the founder (of KTA) that rice is a precious food, so we had to treat it with dignity and respect. We couldn’t just shove it off on a cart, we had to hand carry it and show we had our blood and sweat and tears and everything in this product. Those are the small kinds of values I learned.”
When the store Santa Claus didn’t show up one day in December, Kurisu saw the despondent expression on KTA founder Koichi Taniguchi’s face and didn’t hesitate to act.
“I was just a high school kid, but I jumped into the Santa uniform and I went out there and started passing out candy,” he says. “That’s when I started to learn, whatever you do, you better make sure you do it all you can regardless of what it is. (Being Santa) was not my job, but my job was to make everyone happy, make the customers happy.”
His willingness to go above and beyond made his employers happy as well. The Taniguchi family went on to support him through college — first adjusting his work schedule so he could study in Hilo, then helping him find a job in Honolulu when he moved on to University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. After he graduated from UH’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources, they welcomed him back to the company.
“Can you imagine that? They would find me a job so I could work and continue my education. So, I had an obligation, right?” he says. “So here I am at my 54th year at this company. I saw everything evolve from hand register all the way to computers and to everything else and it has been a journey.”
His journey with the company and in the local food industry continues.
When local restaurants were forced to close during the pandemic, he invited them to do pop-up shops inside KTA’s flagship store in Hilo.
“We provide them with labels and UPC codes and set them up to get into retail,” he says. “It’s still going on and it’s going stronger and stronger. I think we got seven restaurants in our store. The thing I’m doing now is called ‘in-store food trucks.’”
In this iteration, KTA invites a business to cook food for customers inside the store. Because there isn’t an actual food truck, he had signs made depicting a food truck to give customers a better idea of what was being offered.
“I look at it as something very exciting,” he says. “I’m able to provide our customers way more than I could on my own by having these different business partnerships.”
Another newer initiative is his “Man & the Pan” series on KTA’s Instagram account. These are short video demonstrations in which Kurisu walks viewers through simple recipes that require little more than a pan, a stove and a handful of ingredients.
For this particular series, though, he’s facing a challenge not uncommon among content creators.
“I’m kind of running out of ideas of what to make,” he admits, adding that suggestions are welcomed by messaging KTA’s Instagram account, @ktasuperstores.
After all, KTA and Kurisu have always relied on the community for support and feedback. Without that, he says, they wouldn’t be where they are today.
“(The Taniguchi family) wanted me to make sure I’m able to carry on that philosophy,” he says. “Take care of our customers, our suppliers, our people.”