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Big Fish Now Has Teriyaki on the Side : Business: Surfing pioneer Donald Takayama is chairman of the board again--and this time his success includes the food industry.

May 03, 1990|JOE DITLER

Twenty years ago, no one rode a surfboard quite like Donald Takayama of Hawaii. He didn't just ride the board, he walked to the nose in defiance of gravity, and stood there, seemingly forever. He could be still as a cloud, or agile as a gazelle. He pioneered a whole way of surfing for thousands.

Takayama was the first surfer to be paid to surf (for wearing a manufacturer's T-shirt in a contest), and he became known as "Mr. Hawaii" to friends and fellow surfers. He won the U.S. National Surfing Championships three years running (1972-1974) and knocked the industry on its ear with his island charm and boyish good looks.

In the years that followed, Takayama suffered the ups and downs of a cult sport that has never been taken quite seriously. He emerged as the darling of the surf set, but found it difficult to stay on top as the years paddled by him. He was living proof that old surfers never die, they just fade into oblivion. His trophies began to show their age too, and he was soon replaced with a new generation of surfers on shorter boards, with radically new maneuvers.

Now, at 47, Takayama is back. And in a big way. The Oceanside resident's Hawaiian Pro surfboard designs have taken Southern California by storm. His long boards have brought many "older" surfers back to the water, in a renaissance of sorts. The long boards always have been favored by older surfers because they are easier to paddle, although clumsier in the water. Takayama's updated design and materials also have made them light, fast and maneuverable. He also sponsors a surfing team, made up largely of young locals and older, internationally known surfers.

Physically, Takayama is in great shape. He wears his salt-and-pepper hair long, has trimmed off 33 pounds this year, and quit drinking. He is looking forward to becoming a grandfather this year and sees his life finally coming together in what he refers to as his "extended second childhood."

Takayama's reputation in the surfing industry is stronger than ever, but what has caught everybody by surprise is the success of his teriyaki sauce recipe, one that has been passed down in his family for generations, and shared by fellow surfers at beach barbecues and parties for 30 years.

The demand from his friends became so great that a couple of years ago he decided to market the teriyaki sauce under the label "Surfer's Choice." The label sports a picture of Takayama surfing in Hawaii, doing what he did best: riding the nose of the board as landmark Diamond Head peninsula looms romantically in the background.

No longer does he make the recipe in large drums in his back yard. Gone too are the empty whiskey bottles and gallon jugs he would fill with the dark blend to give to friends. And he no longer markets it at the local surf shops. Now he deals with the largest food distributors on the West Coast. His product line includes the teriyaki sauce (called "Da Kine"), and a sweet and chunky pineapple marinade.

He gets letters almost every day from people describing how they use Surfer's Choice. "Some people dunk doughnuts in it, others put it on their hash browns and eggs. One of my friends can't eat cottage cheese without it, and one guy wrote me saying he even drinks the stuff," Takayama said. Most people use it with fish, poultry and meat dishes either as a sauce or marinade.

Three major distribution chains carry Surfer's Choice products. They keep it prominently displayed in many major, upscale markets and gourmet stores. It can be found in all Von's grocery stores, and Takayama deals directly with Albertson's.

"Right now we are in the top third of gourmet items sold at the major distribution houses," said Sheri Mackin, marketing specialist for Takayama. "We are very pleased with the way the product is moving off the shelves. The demand has continually exceeded the supply, and one of our accounts has tripled his sales on a monthly basis. There is a major call for Surfer's Choice on the East Coast, and that's our next target area."

Takayama has dropped in on the big wave of the food industry, and is riding the crest of profits on a scale he never dreamed possible. Some of his long boards bear the Surfer's Choice logo and the nickname, "Teriyaki Stakes." He operates both the surfboard shop and headquarters for Surfer's Choice out of an office in Oceanside, not too far from the beach and his favorite pastime, surfing.

"I still surf quite a bit," Takayama said. "When people call for me, and I'm surfing, the office policy is to tell them, 'Donald is in a board meeting and can't come to the phone.' We just don't tell them it's a surfboard."

His shop on South Cleveland is divided into small rooms for shaping, glassing, sanding and display work. His wife, Sid, works with him in the office, organizing the food and surfboard orders, and trying to screen out the unimportant calls.

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