Hilo Operation Named State’s Top Small Business
by Dave Smith
If it swims, floats, sinks or is otherwise connected to water, chances are S. Tokunaga Store has something to do with it.
That is probably one of the reasons why S. Tokunaga Store has survived the test of time for 92 years, and why current proprietor Michael Tokunaga has been chosen the 2012 Small Business Person of the Year for Hawaii.
Tokunaga’s award was one of three statewide SBA winners on the Big Island this year (see related article).
This also isn’t the first time the U.S. Small Business Administration has honored Tokunaga; in 2008 his company was named the SBA’s family business of the year for the Big Island.
The original store established in 1920 on Hilo’s Bayfront by his grandfather, Sumie Tokunaga, withstood two tsunami and the Great Depression.
Michael Tokunaga, 55, the third generation of his family to run the store, said the store’s longevity may have something to do with keeping up with the latest trends.
“Fishing has changed quite a bit,” he said. “High-tech stuff comes into play.”
That includes more advanced, lighter reels and fluorocarbon fishing line with neutral buoyancy that doesn’t reflect light.
“It’s nearly invisible to fish,” he said. Fishing poles, often made out of carbon fiber, are lighter, stronger and more sensitive to a nibble.
The store, located on Hoku Street between Kilauea Avenue and Kinoole Street, also sells the latest in diving gear and spearguns, and has also branched out to stand-up paddleboards. It also caters to hunters, with ammunition making up a significant portion of its sales.
Perseverance apparently runs in the family.
After being hit by both the 1946 and 1960 tsunami, Sumie Tokunaga moved the business to Mamo Street, where it was taken over by his daughter-in-law, Ethel, who has since passed away.
Back then it was unusual for a woman to run any business, let alone one involving fishing, Tokunaga said. But his mother had been to business school and, besides, “fishing was her love,” he said.
“It’s too bad she’s not here to see this (award),” Michael Tokunaga said.
In addition to his longtime clientele, Tokunaga has seen new generations come through his doors.
“We try to teach our up-and-coming customers to fish smart,” he said, adding that taking care of the fishing resource “is very important for our new generations.”
One of the ways that is done is through the store’s sponsorship of the annual tag-and-release Ulua Challenge. The tournament, which will take place in June, is part of the Pacific Islands Fisheries Group Statewide Tagging Challenge.
Not all of the fish are released, however, as some are provided to the state Division of Aquatic Resources for research.
The business, which has 10 full- and part-time employees, moved to its current location when Tokunaga took over the reins in 1991. With the current 1,500-square-foot space stacked to the ceiling with goods, is another location in the works?
“I think something might be cooking,” Tokunaga said, declining to discuss specifics.
Tokunaga will next compete for the national award, representing Hawaii in Washington, DC May 20-22 for the SBA’s National Small Business Week as he competes against the winners from the 50 states, Guam, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.