The time is just past 7 p.m. in Kaunakakai, Moloka'i, and the bleak streetlights along Ala Malama Avenue blink and shadow its strip of quaint mom-and-pop shops. Many are closed behind deep, dark windows, except for the flash of light that beams a Chevron gas station and a local grocery store.
One business shop that’s unexpectedly open is the legendary 80-year-old Kanemitsu Bakery & Coffee Shop. Camouflaged by its front lights turned off, the bakery welcomes a sprinkling of hungry people with wafts of its freshly baked bread and a single neon “open” sign.
But you can’t get the bread from the front entrance. Locals and Internet research say to go around back, down a dimly lit alleyway. Don't mind the abandoned house to your left or the creaky fence to your right. Just keep going until you see a string of white Christmas lights, which pulls you up to the back entrance of the bakery. There, you’ll find a painting on the wall of huge red and yellow hibiscus flowers followed by a sharpie-penned menu that’s taped up to the backside of an open Dutch door.
“You can get a any two flavored toppings for $7,” said worker T.J. Johnson to a couple from Vancouver, British Columbia, as he points to the menu. It reads a list of five flavors: strawberry, blueberry, cinnamon, butter and cream cheese. “Or you can get the works,” he continues, “which is everything, for $9.”
After the couple place their order, Johnson whisks back to the bakery’s warehouse space to prep open a new loaf of piping hot bread.
“I’ve met people from Japan, Europe, the Philippines,” Johnson laughs as he puts on a pair of plastic gloves. “They say ‘yeah, we just flew down here for the bread’ and I’m like, ‘What? Come on!’ ”
To some, Kanemitsu bakery’s bread might seem like the average loaf but there’s no mistaking the island’s famed omiyage gift once it’s tasted. After baking in a rotating oven, the pillowy soft loaves are cut in half, slathered in choice toppings, then plopped in a single plastic bag ready for takeout. Kanemitsu’s old family recipe brings people in great masses to the empty alleyway, regardless of the late hour.
“If you bake the bread later, it lasts longer,” said owner George Kanemitsu as he peaks open the hefty rotating oven bed. “Because our products don’t have preservatives in it to keep it fresh, we have to make it later in the day so that it’ll last longer the next day.”
Founded in 1935 by Kanemitsu’s father, Shigeo, and his brother Fred, Kanemitsu’s Bakery & Coffee Shop was first located on the outskirts of Kaunakakai but soon moved to Ala Malama Avenue when the foot traffic started to get heavier. Over the years, it transformed from a bakery to a restaurant, then a market, a bowling alley and a nightclub. Today, it's a restaurant and bakery by day and a hot bread machine by night.
“Everyone loves our hot bread,” said Kanemitsu. “We’ve been here for so long, it’s kind of a tradition for many people.”
If you’re ever in the area and can’t seem to find the baker’s back entrance, “don’t worry,” said Johnson, someone will always be around to point you in the right direction.
“They don’t call us the Friendly Isle for nothing,” he said with a hearty laugh.
79 Ala Malama Ave., Kaunakakai, 808.553.5855. Call ahead to find out when the bakery will be open later in the night to serve hot bread.