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The King of Hawaiian Sweet Bread

Robert Taira, son of Okinawan immigrants, has built an empire on puffy round loaves.

April 03, 2002|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

King's Hawaiian Sweet Bread, that slightly sweet, remarkably puffy bread sold in round aluminum trays, has become ubiquitous in Southern California, despite the current trend to crusty sourdoughs. Beloved for its cake-like taste and texture, in the 25 years that it's been baked in Torrance, it's become a fixture at parties and buffets. Anybody with kids certainly knows about it.

The King's Hawaiian baking empire was built by Robert Taira, the ninth-youngest of 11 children of Okinawan immigrants who had moved to the island of Hawaii in 1906 to work on the sugar plantations. While serving as a translator during the American occupation of Japan after World War II, Taira saw that Japan would be a market for Western-style goods once its economy recovered, and he decided to start a business there.

"Clothing," he recalls. "They weren't going to wear the kimono anymore. Or maybe jewelry. I thought I might enjoy that."

Eventually he decided to open a Western-style bakery in Tokyo. When he was discharged from the Army, he attended baking schools in Hilo, Hawaii, and in Chicago with that in mind, but the Korean War intervened. "A civilian couldn't get a permit to go to Japan," he explains.

So in 1950 he opened a bakery back home in Hilo, boldly locating it across the street from the top bakery in town. He was the youngest of six sons, but he must have had the aura of destiny about him, because his father decided to cash in his own life insurance to bankroll it.

His bakery produced far more sophisticated cakes than Hilo had known, and it was a big success by local standards, but Taira wasn't satisfied. In 1958 he started tinkering with a bread he had known growing up in rural Hawaii. The Portuguese called it pao doce, which is probably another name for massa sovada, the sweet bread the Azorean Portuguese serve on the Feast of the Holy Ghost.

"It was a good bread," he says, "but we called it stone bread, because in a day or so it would be as hard as a rock." He worked on the recipe until he had a soft, long-keeping version. "I was always thinking how to expand, and this was something I could wholesale," he says. "It had never been a commercial product before."

Since it was a luxury product, he had to charge about three times as much as ordinary bread, so he decided to make it a round bread, shaped more like a cake than a regular sandwich loaf. "That way, the customers didn't think of it in the same category," he says.

In 1963, he moved to Honolulu and set up a bakery and coffee shop, again locating near other bakeries, figuring he would get their customers, and soon he once again had the most popular bakery in town. Since it was on King Street, it was named King's Bakery, and that's how his product is called King's Hawaiian Sweet Bread.

"Our bread was popular with tourists," he says. "People were ordering it airmail, so we were selling 30,000 loaves a year that way. We were the biggest customer at the Honolulu Post Office."

So he decided to expand to the mainland and opened his first Torrance bakery in 1977. "He'd come here and opened a bakery with only one product and no market," says Shelby Weeda, now the president of King's Hawaiian Bakery. "This was unheard of. He had a hard time convincing markets to stock it, so he'd leave samples with the executives' secretaries, and they'd convince the bosses."

In a matter of months, the bread was in the supermarkets. Eventually, in 1992, he closed his bakery in Hawaii, and Hawaiian customers now get their Hawaiian Sweet Bread from here. The bread is also sold everywhere in the country but the Northeast. It's in Wal-Marts, it's available on military bases.

Because of its round shape, it's hard to use for sandwiches in the usual way, though many people slice it horizontally, fill the whole loaf with a sandwich filling and then serve it in pie-type wedges. Often a loaf is hollowed out and filled with chowder or a nacho-type melted cheese sauce.

"A few years back," says Weeda, "Stagg's Chili wanted our bread for a commercial at the Super Bowl--they filled it with chili, it was their 'super bowl'--and sales shot up. Now it's become a Super Bowl tradition, and the first quarter of the year is one of our busiest."

But people have devised a lot of other uses for the bread, such as bread pudding, French toast, pull-apart bread, coffeecake, "cinnamon rolls." One of the latest recipes on the company's Web site (kingshawaiian.com) is a "rocky road" of bread mixed with chocolate, pecans and marshmallows, a sort of non-baked bread pudding.

"Most people just tear it apart before they get to the car," jests Robert Taira. "That's the number one use of it."

Making this bread is a huge operation. "We go through nine pallets of eggs a day," says Gerry Kammel, the plant manager of King's Hawaiian Bakery West in Torrance. "There are 30 cases to a pallet, 30 dozen to a case, so that's 8,100 dozen."

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