Longtime Molokai baker just got the surprise of his life

Kanemitsu’s Bakery is recognized as 2018 James Beard Award semifinalist

Tucked between the hip, rustic bakeries and artisan breads on the 2018 James Beard semifinalist list is one unassuming bakery in Kaunakakai town that’s been churning out baked goods for 80 years.

Kanemitsu’s Bakery and Coffee Shop is one of 20 bakeries named semifinalists in the Outstanding Baker category of the prestigious James Beard Awards, which celebrate the best of American food culture every year. Mama’s Fish House in Paia also is a semifinalist in the Outstanding Restaurant category. Finalists will be announced March 14.

Bakery owner George Kanemitsu said he heard the news because people kept coming up to him on the street and congratulating him.

“I said, ‘What I won?’ “ Kanemitsu recalled Friday. “I thought it was one joke. There are so many thousands of bakeries. How can they pick me?”

The regulars on Molokai and the customers who flock to the bakery’s booth at the Made in Maui County Festival every year could probably answer that question — it’s all about the bread, the soft, white, round loaf baked with the same recipe Kanemitsu’s father concocted back in the 1950s.

By far the oldest bakery on the semifinalist list, Kanemitsu’s began around 1935 in a small shack in Manila Camp, Kanemitsu said. His father, Shigeo Kanemitsu, and uncle Fred Kanemitsu liked to bake for the family, and people in the neighborhood would come over and ask to buy bread, baked fresh in a brick oven.

Around 1945, the family moved the bakery to Kaunakakai town, in the same location the bakery occupies today between Molokai Wines & Spirits and Imamura’s. When school let out for vacation, George Kanemitsu and his younger brother and sister helped out in the bakery. George Kanemitsu remembers his dad always experimenting with different bread recipes — adding and reducing the yeast, altering the mixing time, changing the temperature of the water.

“I asked my dad, ‘How come you keep so many samples?’ “ George Kanemitsu said. “He was trying to make the bread better. At that time I thought, ‘Bread is bread.’ “

In the early 1950s, his father nailed down the recipe that the bakery has used ever since. George Kanemitsu said there is a secret ingredient, but other factors also come into play. Making good bread is all about the timing, he said.

The family added the restaurant side in the late 1950s. George Kanemitsu’s mother, Dorothy, and aunty Barbara — sisters who married brothers Shigeo and Fred — did the cooking.

George Kanemitsu started to realize just how good the bakery’s bread was when he attended Hawaiian Mission Academy in Honolulu, where he graduated in 1963. Instead of asking him to bring over Molokai’s famous venison, the students requested bread. George Kanemitsu thought they were joking, but the loaves were a big hit.

These days, that same craving draws local families and curious tourists to the alley behind the bakery for late-night sales of “hot bread.” Workers take orders at the backdoor and hand out plastic bags of freshly baked loaves, sliced crosswise and slathered in strawberry or blueberry filling, cream cheese, cinnamon or butter (or all of the above).

The bakery brings the popular product to the Made in Maui County Festival and often sells out within the first few hours.

George Kanemitsu said the “hot bread” tradition began some 20 to 30 years ago, when friends would knock on the bakery door after business hours asking to buy bread. Soon, customers got wind of the after-hours sales.

“Oh what, you guys selling the bread?” they asked.

So, Shigeo Kanemitsu started opening it up to others. The “hot bread” used to come out at 10:30 or 11 p.m., but the bakery now brings the bread out at 7:30 p.m. to make it easier for customers.

Today, George Kanemitsu is the only family member running the bakery. His parents, aunty, uncle and brother have died. His sister, a retired pediatrician, lives in California. George Kanemitsu no longer bakes but still oversees operations of the bakery, which produces 500 to 600 loaves of the famous “Molokai bread” every day, in addition to pastries, pies and lavosh. At 73, he said he’ll probably keep running the bakery “forever.”

“If I retire, I die early,” he said. “I’ve got to keep doing something. If I don’t do something, my body, everything, goes down. So when it’s time for me to step back, when the time comes, I will do that.”

He has a young manager, Aramis Buchanan, waiting in the wings. Buchanan runs the bakery’s recently opened Honolulu operations, making about 250 loaves a day in a small kitchen and selling them to the public out of a lunch wagon. (Visit molokaihotbread.com for updates.) George Kanemitsu said he hopes to get bigger ovens to eventually serve the hotels and restaurants that are already requesting the bread.

In recent years, the Molokai bakery has had some run-ins with the state Department of Health. In 2000, the bakery was fined $90,000 for sanitation violations, though most of the fines were eventually waived, according to The Molokai Dispatch.

In March 2012, the department ordered Kanemitsu’s to suspend operations after inspectors cited violations that included “improper cleaning of cooking implements, inadequate control of rodents, lack of hot water and general unsanitary conditions.”

Kanemitsu’s did not shut down for two days, incurring $90,000 in fines. The bakery appealed the fines, saying it had corrected the errors and thought it had the green light to operate.

In June 2012, the department suspended the bakery’s permit after another inspection found “serious deficiencies.” After improvements and more inspections, the department reinstated the bakery’s permit in November 2012. In 2014, the bakery and department reached a settlement that allowed the bakery to pay $20,000 of the original $90,000 fines.

Kanemitsu preferred not to go into detail Friday — “it’s in the past,” he said — but added that the bakery has made numerous improvements and hasn’t had a violation since.

Over 80 years in business, one of the few things that’s changed about Kanemitsu’s is the ovens, which are conventional — no longer the brick ovens of his dad’s days.

“The bread is good, but not as good as what my dad them used to make,” George Kanemitsu said.

While he doesn’t think he’ll be a James Beard finalist, George Kanemitsu has been pleasantly surprised by the recognition.

“I just want to thank the people in Hawaii for always supporting me,” he said. “Just to be a semifinalist, it was a big honor. . . . To tell you the truth, it seems like the people that approached me are more excited for me than (I am for) myself.”

Perennial award winner Mama’s Fish House, meanwhile, is no stranger to recognition, though it’s the first time the restaurant has been named a James Beard semifinalist. Mama’s was founded in 1973 by Doris and Floyd Christenson, an adventuresome couple whose travels through the South Pacific eventually brought them to Maui, where they opened their dream restaurant on the north shore.

“It’s a real honor,” said daughter Karen Christenson, beverage and marketing manager for Mama’s. “Our team, everybody that’s down there, is at it every day. They’re slammed every day and they love it.”

The open-air restaurant with views of the ocean features the fresh catch of local fishermen and seafood delicacies from around the Pacific. Even with a team of 350 employees, Christenson said the restaurant aims to stay true to its mom-and-pop roots.

“It’s more than a feel. It’s the real thing,” Christenson said. “Mom and pop are there. They dine in the restaurant twice a day, most days. . . . The team and people have been there a long time. To me, every employee is family.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.