KAHULUI — Fifty-one-year-old Nolan Tan remembers coming to Camellia Seeds when he was 5 or 6 six years old to buy picked plums.
“I still remember all these jars,” he said Wednesday, motioning over to rows of large glass containers holding multiple varieties of the preserved products.
When asked if the plums taste the same as before, he acknowledged that they almost do, “but maybe not too pickled now,” he said with a chuckle.
For around two and a half years now, Tan and his wife, Kyoung, have owned the small but mighty red-and-white crack seed store at Queen Ka’ahumanu Center.
The store, which opened in 1972, the same year the mall opened, has weathered recessions, ever-lasting competition and a pandemic, all by simply selling Icee, boba tea, candies, and of course, locally loved preserved seeds.
Queen Ka’ahumanu Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary today as the island’s largest mall and gathering place, offering entertainment and prize giveaways from 2 to 6 p.m.
Ka’ahumanu Center first opened on Sept. 15, 1972 and was developed by the Dillingham Land Corp., the same owner/developer of Ala Moana Center at the time. Work began in March 1972 on what was described as a $10 million center, according to Maui News reports at the time.
Liberty House and Sears Roebuck and Co. were the two original anchor tenants that opened up in 1972.
(Liberty House was taken over by Macy’s in 2001 after filing for bankruptcy protection in 1998.)
A grand opening was held for the entire center on June 8, 1974, with 48 stores, according to Kauwela Bisquera, general manager of Queen Ka’ahumanu Center.
Longtime residents will recall some of the earlier stores and eateries that have now closed, including Shirokiya, Thom McAn shoes, Hartfield’s, Miki’s and the Match, Craft’s Drug, Runway 7, Orange Julius, Arby’s, Island Snow, House of Music and Ma-chans Okazuya, to name a few.
Besides Camellia Seeds, some other locally owned stores also have been at the mall for more than 40 years, including Ben Franklin, which has moved away from being a variety store to one devoted to crafts. There is also Sew Special, which has been at the mall for 44 years and is run by the Huntley family. Sew Special continues to provide services such as alternations and servicing sewing machines for high schools.
The mall, which had been one level at its opening, had a pond around its center stage and wire sculptures, but that changed as the center underwent a major renovation between 1993 and 1994.
A third wing was added along with a second level and new anchor location, which previously was occupied by JCPenney, but now is occupied by Macy’s Men’s, Children & Home store.
Bisquera said that additional renovation elements included the soaring high-tech fabric roof that now sits above the mall. The fabric roof was patterned after the sail of ships that used to dock in the Hawaiian islands.
Subsequent upgrades were made including in 2003, with the addition of the children’s play area, new paint colors and tiling and new seating areas.
Bisquera said the mall now has more than 90 shops and restaurants with half being locally owned businesses in the 571,020 square feet of leasable area that the mall offers.
She did not respond to a question about how many vacancies there are at the mall, but some of the larger spots not filled include the Ruby’s Diner location in front of the mall. The restaurant closed abruptly in October 2015.
Anchor tenant Sears closed in November, and the storefront next to it, which hosted dollar stores in the past, also stands vacant.
Bisquera said that the mall has partnered with Maui Public Art Corps to host a temporary large-scale mural on the facade of the old Sears building. It will promote Kahului’s history, culture and sense of place, she added.
“We are thrilled to be able to unveil the winning artists and mural soon and are prepared to make a $10,000 contribution to subsidize this project,” she added.
Despite recent closures, the mall is also adding tenants.
Cat Cafe Maui opened in August and features an area where people can play with cats and have a chance to adopt them. A corn dog concept Mr. Cow is expected to arrive possibly this month, and in the coming months, Football Fanatics and Tanoa, a Polynesian apparel brand, will join the mall, Bisquera said.
Even as new tenants join, the mall continues to deal with foreclosure issues.
In November 2020, U.S. Bank filed for foreclosure, saying the mall’s owner, QKC Maui Owner LLC, defaulted on an $88.5 million loan, prompting court proceedings.
As part of a summary judgment last year in foreclosure and court proceedings, Oscar Parra of California-based Pacific Retail Capital Properties was scheduled to be appointed as commissioner and will oversee the sale of the mall property.
Parra has been serving as receiver, who manages, oversees, takes control of and operates the property.
Bisquera, who said this week she was “not at liberty” to comment on the foreclosure, had previously said in August that the mall continues to be managed and operated by Pacific Retail Capital Properties. It continues to evaluate “highest and best use for the center while creating a robust programming schedule and prioritizing local tenant support.”
Overall, Bisquera said that shopping malls around the country, maybe even globally, are “undergoing a historic transformation regarding their relevance to the communities they serve, as retailers struggle to compete with e-commerce and the global pandemic has created a seismic shift in the way people shop, live, work and play.”
“Big box anchors are reducing their physical footprint and spaces are laying vacant,” she said.
As retail evolves, she said center officials are “evaluating the highest and best use” for the mall specific to the needs of the community.
Surviving the ‘ups and downs’
Tenants say they would like to see more businesses in the mall and acknowledge the struggle of being a brick-and-mortar shop.
“The concept of a shopping mall is dwindling because of online shopping, but if the mall can be a gathering place that family and friends can hang out and stay the day, that would be great,” said Shannon Loo, founder of Mise Kimono, one of the new stores at the mall that opened in March. “Having a selection of activities and dining would be a wonderful way to create that atmosphere. I think what we’re going to see in the coming years is that evolution.”
Chris Akahoshi, owner of One Eighty, also would like to see more stores, both locally owned and corporate, but of course leans more toward having local stores like his own.
He said more stores would make it more livelier at the mall, but added that he thinks management is “doing a good job” of trying to encourage that.
As for the revolving door of businesses at the mall, Akahoshi said he’s seen the “ups and downs” but added that’s the business of retail everywhere.
“Just got to pivot and do something better,” he said of how to survive.
Akahoshi has been at Queen Ka’ahumanu Center for 18 years, attracting long lines when he releases new designs for his apparel.
“When we first stared we did not know what to expect. We just took it day by day and enjoyed every moment of it. Every year gets better,” he said.
Bisquera noted that the mall is also home to more than 50 “community-driven” events annually, including the island’s largest Japanese festival, the Maui Matsuri, Prince Kuhio Maui Hoolaulea, Maui Economic Opportunity’s Abilities Awareness Fair and others.
Longtime businesses like Camellia Seeds are still finding ways to make it work. Nolan Tan said he is asked by his workers at his other job at the county how the store is able to make it financially by just selling drinks and snacks.
He says there are loyal local customers that stop by, with some still picking up the preserved seeds by the pound, or two. Customers say that Camellia’s seeds taste better than the other seeds they buy from big box stores. Maui transplants on the Mainland also visit the store when they come home.
Their bubble or boba tea is also a hit.
“That’s what keeps us still alive,” he said.
Nolan Tan said they also stock hard-to-find or nostalgic candies that customers look for, such as Mexican candy, old school Boston Baked Beans and Nik-L-Nip candy, which are wax-shaped bottles with candy liquid inside.
Some mall shoppers also just come in for a whiff of the preserved seeds, Kyoung Tan said. Usually these are former Maui residents returning to relive their childhood memories, she said.
As for weathering the pandemic, Kyoung Tan said she decided she would run the shop by herself, to eliminate extra costs. She mostly continues the seven-day work week now, with the help of her husband, her daughter Lydia, who is a high school student, and son Alan, who now attends the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Prior to the Tans assuming ownership, Uncha Oh of Wailuku owned and ran the shop for 30 years.
Kyoung Tan had worked for Oh for around five years and bought the business from her as Oh wanted to retire.
Oh said Thursday she had bought the shop in 1990 from a Mr. Kaya on Oahu, who was connected with the GEM Hawaii stores, which have long since closed.
She said that prior to boba tea becoming popular, Icee was the beverage of choice at the store. It is still sold today.
Back in the early 90s when she first bought the shop, she was told by Hawaii Icee officials that she was the top seller of Icees in the state — so much so that she was given another machine.
She didn’t know the cause of the success, but said maybe it was “Jesus.” All she had to do was pull the lever on the machine to dispense the sweet cool treat.
Longtime locals remember when there was no boba tea, but they went to the shop for Icees, which mainly came in Strawberry and cola flavors. There was also popcorn popped fresh in a machine at the front of the store.
But Oh said she eventually stopped selling popcorn as the machine was troublesome to fix and would use electricity all day to keep the popcorn fresh and hot. Popcorn sales were also slumping, which caused Oh to have to raise her prices on the snack. Customers complained, and eventually she discontinued the popcorn.
But over the years, her preserved seeds still sold. She thinks part of it is due to her own mixtures and recipes for seeds. She would import the seeds and add other flavors, a skill she has also taught to Kyoung Tan.
Her storage room at the store was also a perfect temperature, where the seeds were not exposed to extreme heat nor the cold from the air conditioner.
But over the years as seeds were more popular for the older generation of Maui residents, Oh increased her candy line. A shelf with different types of candy runs along the walls of almost the entire store. Above it are packaged seeds and local snacks such as dried cuttle fish.
Oh said her business took hits when big box stores Kmart and Walmart opened.
She also had less business when the mall opened up its second-floor food court in the 1990s, as now there were more options for snacks and meals.
But she made it through.
“It’s not easy to survive,” she said, adding that she owes it to the customers.
“Thank you to the people who live on Maui for support with Camellia Seeds over the years,” she said.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at [email protected]