Step inside the gigantic, nondescript building near the corner of Auahi Street and Ward Avenue and you are greeted by a gold, life-size statue of Hawai‘i-born sumo wrestler Akebono in mid-grapple. Above, the Hawaiian Islands are airbrushed on the ceiling; below, the aquatic blue floor shines, giving the impression that you’re walking on water. A deep breath brings in a mix of smells coming from all directions: fried food, Vietnamese pho, pork (maybe it’s hot dogs, maybe it’s barbecue), milk tea and freshly brewed coffee. Vendor booths offering everything from hand-carved koa pendants to mass-produced heart-shaped sunglasses line aisles where teenagers, tourists, kids running ahead of parents, construction workers and police officers on lunch or off-duty, and small groups of assorted tūtū in mu‘umu‘u wander.
Welcome to ‘Ohana Hale Marketplace. The indoor open market is the anchor tenant of Ward Gateway Center, the small cluster of buildings at the ‘Ewa edge of Ward Village, near Jamba Juice and Wahoo’s Fish Tacos. The 60,000-square-foot space has been used a variety of ways over the years, including as Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s reelection campaign headquarters in 2016 and as the site of the first Honolulu Biennial in 2017. And (inevitably) the space served as a Halloween costume and supply shop during the holidays. But if you haven’t been there in a while, you might be surprised by what the old Sports Authority has become.
“‘Ohana Hale Marketplace is like a shopping center for small businesses. Or a swap meet with upgrades—like AC,” says owner Chris Ulu. For between $900 and $1,200 a month, any company can score one of the 160 10-foot-by-10-foot spaces to sell products. (Food sellers pay roughly $1,400 to $1,600 a month for booths equipped with hand-washing sinks.) Owners are free to customize their spaces as much or as little as they choose. Toshi Sushi built an entire micro izakaya and sushi counter in its corner booth. Tacoholics HI has little more than a pair of black banners and plastic menus to promote its tacos, tortas and burritos. Businesses can expand by removing the walls between the modular booths and leases are available month to month, a rare thing for commercial retail agreements.
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“You can try out an idea here and, if you do good, you can prosper on the outside,”
— Chris Ulu, Owner
“You can try out an idea here and, if you do good, you can prosper on the outside,” Ulu says. “We’ve had a lot of people coming in from the [Aloha Stadium] Swap Meet, and we’ll offer them [a rate of] $75 for a weekend to see what it’s like here. Our goal is for [‘Ohana Hale Marketplace] to be a one-stop shop.”
The idea has been a long time coming for Ulu, who grew up in Wai‘anae and got his start not in the retail or food industries, but in self-storage. He worked his way up from warehouse driver and janitor to become the manager of a place called Salt Lake Self Storage in 2001. In that role he initially added air conditioning and wi-fi just as a convenience for his renters. But over time, Ulu found people running entire businesses out of storage spaces, either selling products directly out of their units or converting them into mini offices. “He thought maybe we should create a whole marketplace for people,” says Andrew Ulu, Chris Ulu’s son and ‘Ohana Hale’s general manager.
It was a good idea, but turning it into something proved more difficult than expected. “Plenty places like this in Los Angeles or New York, but [‘Ohana Hale] was a kinda new concept for Hawai‘i,” Chris Ulu says. “At first, it was hard for people to understand, but I believed in the concept and just kept working on it.” Harder still was finding the right space. Ulu explored options in Kapolei and Waikele and met local property owners excited about the concept. But when the time came to sign a contract, the deal would always fall apart.
Meanwhile, Ulu only saw demand increase for more affordable business venues in Honolulu. The old International Market Place in Waikīkī and Ward Warehouse in Kaka‘ako, once refuges for an eclectic mix of retailers, were torn down. New, shinier complexes pushed out tchotchke kiosks, comic book stores and other small businesses in favor of luxury brands or just because there wasn’t enough space for everyone.
Ulu saw an opportunity. Ward Village did too, and in 2018, the lease was signed and Ulu’s indoor swap meet had a home. “I finally had the concept set up how I wanted,” Ulu says. “But, especially in the beginning, it was really hard to open the doors.”
To start, neither the Hawai‘i Department of Health nor the Honolulu Fire Department knew exactly what to do with ‘Ohana Hale or how to properly regulate the marketplace. Was it considered a shopping mall? Was it just one big store? “At first, the Health Department said the vendors didn’t need hand-washing sinks. But after we finished building out the walls and the floors, they came back and said, ‘Actually, everybody who’s selling food gotta have a sink,’” says Ulu, who had to contract engineers to design a special plumbing system that runs across the ceiling. Additional pumps were added to connect food vendors to three grease traps installed in the front and back of the building. Ulu estimates the cost of preparing the building at a little more than $2 million. “The state didn’t really know how to handle this new concept, but we were sort of the guinea pigs to try everything out.”
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They weren’t the only ones. When it opened in October that year, the customers who found it were also confused. Some vendors initially complained about the lack of foot traffic, though attendance steadily rose each month. ‘Ohana Hale was finally starting to gain the traction that Ulu was hoping for. Then COVID-19 happened.
During the second lockdown last September, Ulu found himself in hot water for reopening ‘Ohana Hale’s doors too soon, which violated the emergency rules that kept nonessential businesses closed. But, Ulu reasoned, the marketplace contained a mix of businesses considered both nonessential (folks selling knickknacks, offering electronics repair) and essential, such as restaurants and companies selling masks.
“When I called the hotline, a guy in the mayor’s office gave me the OK to reopen but said maybe just don’t open the hairstylist and massage place. So we closed those and opened the rest. Then the cops came, shut us down. I went to court and the judge threw the case out, so I guess it’s been a learning process,” Ulu says.
Two months later, in November 2020, some ‘Ohana Hale food vendors were cited for using commercial cooking equipment that wasn’t certified by UL (Underwriter Laboratories, a global safety certification company) to limit grease emissions. Engineers checked all appliances and issued vendors individual permits to meet state health and county fire guidelines, according to Ulu. Food vendors using residential cooking appliances switched over to UL-certified commercial equipment. And various other issues—such as making sure that emergency exit signs were working and fire extinguishers were stocked—were quickly fixed. “We had some vendors close. Others changed their menus. Everyone else got their permits,” says Ulu. “The good thing is that we have a lot of vendors under one roof so we all try to pull together.”
Bev Matsuura is the owner of Chili in Hawai‘i, which opened in ‘Ohana Hale in 2018. “We’re like family,” she says. “When someplace new opens, all the vendors will try their products. On social media, we’ll share other people’s posts or buy from each other and share it on Instagram.” In 2006, Matsuura and her husband, Mike Kahn, took over the more than 20-year-old hot sauce/spices/salsa/chile store on King Street from the original owners. Then, during the 2008 financial crisis, the couple packed up shop. “We became weekend warriors, just doing the swap meet, plus local expos, block parties, stuff like that,” Matsuura says. “We liked doing shows at Blaisdell or Aloha Stadium because you get to know your neighbors. But it’s only temporary.”
Matsuura also liked ‘Ohana Hale because she could finally put her chiles and spices to use in such dishes as chili nachos, lamb curry, smothered burritos, taco salads and Portuguese bean soup. “Everybody has different styles and ways of doing business. Here, we meld together.”
Satomi Arbeit also found success at ‘Ohana Hale. Arbeit worked as a barista at the Hawaiian Fresh Roast coffee shop in the marketplace when it first opened. Seeing how successful some of the retail shops became, she decided to stop making coffee and start making products for cat lovers at her Snobby Cats shop. Now, she offers a range of items including scarves and face masks using kimono fabric adorned with cat illustrations. “I don’t know if I could open a shop on the outside yet; it’s pretty expensive,” Arbeit says. “But in ‘Ohana, the rent is affordable, the neighbors are nice and this is a perfect space for new vendors or anyone who wants to start their own business.”
Michael and Lei-Anne Jones’ path went the other way. He was formerly a manager for several retail health and wellness companies while she had worked in marketing for tech companies and startups. Together, they ran BodyMake Hawai‘i, a pain management and recovery shop that sold percussion massagers, heating pads, topical CBD lotions, vitamins and supplements. With COVID-19, the couple was eventually forced to close both of its shops, one at ‘Ohana Hale and the other in Waikīkī.
“Michael loves to cook; he studied culinary arts in college, but we’ve never owned a restaurant or even really worked in the food industry before,” Lei-Anne Jones says. “Whenever he and I were in between jobs, we’d talk about opening a food truck but it never panned out. When BodyMake closed last year, we were already in ‘Ohana Hale and thought: Why don’t we just try something here?”
In August—right before the second stay-at-home order—the Joneses opened Nana Ai Katsu, named for their daughter (Nanami) who loves (“ai” in Japanese) eating katsu. The takeout restaurant quickly developed a devoted following for its grab ’n’ go Spam katsu musubi and signature tonkatsu made with at least seven layers of primo kurobuta pork, served in made-to-order bentos with fluffy Koshihikari rice, potato salad and assorted okazu side dishes. “We meet a lot of new customers who come up to our booth and say, ‘I need the layered thing,’ meaning our tonkatsu,” Jones says, laughing. “It was a little scary at first to be working with food, which is a whole new industry for us. But we figured, now or never. We went into this with an open mind, knowing that we were starting a business in the middle of a pandemic.”
Though Jones expresses frustration at the stay-at-home orders and the previous marketplace closures (“For a while, it felt like every time we were starting to build momentum, everything would shut down …”), she also credits ‘Ohana Hale’s flexible structure as a big part of Nana Ai Katsu’s success. “We wouldn’t have been able to start either of our two businesses if it wasn’t for Chris [Ulu]. You sometimes hear stories about leases that are crazy long and with huge down payment deposits, but there aren’t many places where you can just start up really quickly, month to month, with low risk.”
Says Ulu: “In the beginning, I told people that our market is tourists. But when COVID stopped all the flights coming in, it was the local people who came to support us. We were still busy, thanks to them. Locals have always been there for us and we’re there for them. Especially these days, that’s pretty great.”