HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - A drenching rain one recent Friday afternoon didn’t deter the dozens of people in line at Matsumoto’s Shave Ice.
It’s an ordinary sight for second-generation owner Stanley Matsumoto, who now sees hundreds of customers from around the world enter the shop his father started on a daily basis.
Shave ice ― whipped together using an assortment of fruit syrups and soft mochi and vanilla ice cream and condensed milk, depending on your flavor du jour ― is a delicacy that has become a cultural sensation in Hawaii.
But it wasn’t always that way. Shave ice actually has humble beginnings in the islands, dating back to the Japanese immigrants who brought it to Hawaii in the early 1900s.
With farm laborers and plantation workers putting in long days in the stifling fields, immigrants began to open up small shops that served icy kaki-gori to exhausted employees.
Stanley Matsumoto knows the story well. His father was one of those immigrants.
Born in Hawaii, Mamoru Matsumoto actually moved to Japan with his family at a very young age.
While growing up on the other side of the Pacific, Mamoru and his family struggled to make ends meet. As he entered adulthood, the financial strain forced Mamoru to sail back to Hawaii to look for work.
After he arrived, he bounced from job to job, laboring for sugar plantations and on the railroad and later working as a salesman for the Sakai Store in Haleiwa.
After marrying his wife, Helen Momoyo Ogi, Mamoru was given the opportunity to open his own grocery store: M. Matsumoto Store, Inc.
As his family grew, Matsumoto knew he needed to expand the business. Soon, they decided to turn the store into a shave ice shop.
“My dad always wanted to start a grocery store, not knowing that we were going to do a shave ice business,” said Stanley Matsumoto. “Back then, in the 50s, the North Shore was known as a plantation town. The Waialua Sugar Mill was up and it was really a laid-back country style, you know, not as much tourists over here.”
Established in the 1951, the business didn’t exactly kick off right away. In fact, Matsumoto said it wasn’t really until the next decade that Matsumoto’s began to pick up, when mainland surfers moved to the North Shore.
“I guess the North Shore became the well-known surfing mecca of the world, so that’s when everything started to change and become more like a tourist town, like a surfing town," said Matsumoto. “For us, (it) was like word of mouth advertising, local people bring in local friends, then mainland friends coming. It was just word of mouth that was such a big thing."
Since then, the store has become a must-go destination for visitors.
Listed as one of the top destinations on Yelp and other websites, Matsumoto’s has largely taken over the shave ice market on the North Shore ― which has caused competition to try new things to get a leg up.
New flavors, menu changes and added specials are among the many changes that shops in Hawaii are making to stand out from one another.
“When my parents started, there was only like ten flavors," Stanley Matsumoto said. "Now, we are close to about 40 flavors. Sometimes, we try to add new flavors or most of the syrup make, we make it ourselves, which could be the difference to like our own secret recipe.”
The shop has also taken an eco-friendly turn with the way it delivers its products.
“We are trying to get rid of plastic, so we finally got a paper straw now,” Matsumoto says.
Stanley also says that he hopes that Matsumoto’s stays in the family, just as he took over for his parents after they opened.
“For me I’m just going to keep it on as much as I can with the business, helping out. Because I just love helping out,” said Stanley. “Right now I have my three kids … they’re all kind of helping out with the business, but one of them maybe can keep it going on.”
But their’s isn’t the only family with eyes on shave ice supremacy.
Bronson Chang says the idea for Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha ― another shave ice must-stop in the islands ― started with his uncle Clayton Chang, the namesake of the company.
“Our history goes way back. A lot of people here in the Aina Haina community kind of knows our stories,” said Bronson Chang.
In 1996, Clayton Chang became the owner of a small candy shop in Aina Haina called Doe Fang. Clayton was known as “Uncle Clay” by many.
“He was really known for his magic Icees back then, as well as all the other li hing products. But probably more so for just who he was or is to so many people, sharing the spirit of as we call here ‘pure aloha’ with everyone who came in,” said Bronson Chang.
It wasn’t until 2011, though, that Chang stepped in with an idea for a new venture for Uncle Clay.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m kind of learning about that and I need to do my school project, maybe I can do it on the shop,’” Chang said. “So all of that kind of led to in 2011, we ended up opening as Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha here in Aina Haina, and with that we introduced our all-natural homemade shave ice.”
Eight years later, the business has seen tremendous growth, including the opening of a new store at Ala Moana.
“Really, we took one of Hawaii’s beloved favorite desserts and treats, shave ice, and made it all natural,” said Bronson Chang.
Chang acknowledges that many of the shave ice shops on the island have their own character and style. At HOPA, he says that they pride themselves on their natural flavors and their service to customers.
“We use only real fruits, no artificial ingredients, and since then, over the past 8 years we’ve just continued to grow the business,” Chang said. “One thing that we really focus on is quality, so we really look at the ingredients we use, we look at our recipes.
Walking into the shop, customers are greeted with a warm welcome by the staff ― an attitude that Bronson says is part of what makes HOPA unique.
“For us it really does start with kind of our mission of cultivating pure aloha. That’s kind of really what we’re driven by,” Chang said.
Though House of Pure Aloha is competitive with the island’s other shave ice shops, Chang said the treat in general is what brings the community together.
“I mean, we are the rainbow state, right?" he says. "Shave ice is something that brings people together and represents a lot of people.”
One of the most recent shave ice shops to stir up a craze in the community is Island Vintage Shave Ice, an addition to the well-known coffee shop Island Vintage Coffee.
Angeli Ternida is the director of operations for Island Vintage Coffee. She says that the idea to create a shave ice brand came from the ingredients they used to make their coffee.
“The idea came about in working with our coffee shop menu, we have a full on menu that is available everyday at the coffee shop,” said Ternida.
Like many shave ice shops, Ternida says they make their own syrups ― though she emphasizes that they only use fruits that were grown across the islands.
“I think definitely the use of the fresh fruits for our syrups is kind of what sets us apart, and the local people and the guests really appreciate that,” said Ternida.
“We always try to go organic and natural and because we live in the islands, we have such an abundance of beautiful produce and really nice sweet fruits, and so we thought we could use those to make shave ice flavors instead of buying just store-bought syrups.”
With locations in the Royal Hawaiian Center and Ala Moana Shopping Center, Island Vintage Shave Ice has an ever-changing menu.
“We are always coming up with new things, and then we have a dedicated person who kind of comes up with the menu and plays around with different flavors, goes to different farms throughout the islands to source for beautiful ingredients that we can offer at our stores,” said Ternida.
Whether it is Matsumoto’s Shave Ice, Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha, or Island Vintage Shave Ice, the market for Hawaii’s iconic icy-treat is growing.
A simple snow cone that once featured only a couple of flavors has skyrocketed in popularity, and whether it’s new ingredients or different recipes, shave ice has become an indelible part of island cuisine.
“At the end of the day, it’s a super-simple product, tastes really great, and a great way for the family to spend time together,” said Bronson Chang. “Food is something that connects us. It’s a universal experience for anyone, and I think that shave ice is one of those desserts that really is iconic of Hawaii.”