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Taste the Rainbow: Shaved-ice Business Has Grown

From canned goods to syrupy flakes of packed ice, the Matsumoto family has endured and grown their little mom-and-pop store into an entrepreneurial phenomenon.

Stan Matsumoto, the owner of Matsumoto Shave Ice, still recalls the days when he had to help his father with the iconic Matsumoto Grocery Store. Hoping to catch late-night moviegoers or workers heading home, Matsumoto’s father, Mamoru Matsumoto, would bring grocery items to North Shore residents’ doorsteps while his wife, Helen, manned the store in Haleiwa. 

“My dad had a panel truck,” says Matsumoto. “He used to go around the community trying to sell canned goods in the back.” 

This was Mamoru Matsumoto’s life after working in a sugar plantation, the railroad and eventually as a salesman for the Sakai Store in Haleiwa. It was his dream of opening his own business as a way to support his family in Haleiwa and relatives back in Hiroshima, Japan.

When Tanaka Store owner Kazuo Tanaka gave Mamoru Matsumoto the chance to take over his store, he jumped at the opportunity. Matsumoto says his father, although grateful for the spot they now call home today, “struggled” at first and had to work “really hard” in order for the family business to stay afloat.

“He had to borrow loaves of bread from a supermarket,” Matsumoto continues. “… said he’ll return it when the bread man comes the next day. He never took a vacation. He’d go over to the Tanaka’s and hand crank cut their lawn. Just to be thankful, show his appreciation. That’s the kind of person he was.”

In 1956, five years after Matsumoto Grocery Store first opened their doors to the public, a family friend suggested that the store sell cones of shave ice to help make up for slow business. Mamoru and Helen soon purchased a hand-crank shave ice machine from Japan, attached an electric motor, and started making shave ice cones at five cents apiece.

“I guess we got popular by word of mouth,” Matsumoto says. “It took a while at first because it started off with just the local people. Haleiwa was a not a busy town back then.” 

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when hoards of surf fanatics would flood the beaches of North Shore, which put Matsumoto Grocery Store on the map and on every visitors to-do list. Today, over half a century later, ask any Hawaii resident what shave-ice store is the most iconic and they’ll more than likely say “Matsumoto’s.”

The simple snack purchase to go along with the Matsumoto family business grew into an around-the-clock shave-ice-making machine. With more than 1,200 cones packed up on a single hot summer day, locals and visitors from around the world will gladly wait in a long, snake-like line for a chance to sip and chomp at the many Matsumoto flavors and combinations. 

In 1976, custom-made Matsumoto Shave Ice T-shirts became available for purchase. Matsumoto says that it was originally made for the family to wear while working at the shop but due to the demand from customers, they now sell 40 T-shirt designs.

It’s become a keepsake memento (that won’t melt) from Matsumoto Shave Ice for jealous friends and family members back at home. At first Matsumoto had a hard time initiating the T-shirt racks over the canned good items to his father as he was adamant on keeping the items that made Matsumoto’s store what it is today.

“Oh he was so upset,” Matsumoto says shaking his head. “We had to take one whole row, then the next row the next month … He worked so hard to build it how it is now that’s why. But eventually he was OK with it. For it was the shave ice that got people coming back. That’s what we became known for.” 

Known and also loved by many visitors who make it a habit to stop by when they come through the laid-back beach town of Haleiwa. A compliment that Matsumoto knows his parents would have been grateful to see.

“If they were alive right now they would be so happy to see how the store is today,” Matsumoto says. “They would be so proud to see everyone come to the store and have a nice time.”