Pahoa grocery store reopens

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More than 100 shoppers lined the outside of Malama Market on Wednesday in Pahoa in anticipation of the grocery store’s grand reopening.

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More than 100 shoppers lined the outside of Malama Market on Wednesday in Pahoa in anticipation of the grocery store’s grand reopening.

It’s been an inconvenient three months since the market closed its doors in response to the approach of the June 27 lava flow, they said, and the reopening is an important sign that life in Pahoa could be returning to normal.

“When Longs reopened, we all went crazy, too,” said Peggy Asuncion as she stood in line in front of the market about an hour before it was scheduled to open.

Formerly a frequent shopper at the store, the Nanawale resident said buying groceries the last few months has meant making the 12-mile trek into Keaau, or even farther to Hilo.

“You had to make sure you had your list, and you make sure you don’t forget anything,” she said.

When she had to quickly restock milk and other staples between trips to the grocery store, she had to pick them up at the Pahoa 7-Eleven, where prices were considerably higher.

“This is a blessing,” she said of Malama Market’s reopening.

Shortly before a ceremonial maile untying to officially reopen the store, Jenai S. Wall, chairman and CEO of the Sullivan Family of Companies, which owns Malama Market, thanked managers and other workers, including the 70 employees who returned to the store following its closure. An additional 21 employees were hired before the reopening, giving the store a total of 91 staff members, according to a spokesperson.

“All of you are part of the extended family,” she said. “We’re excited and delighted. … We did go through a trying time, but we’re coming back into the community stronger. Thank you for your hard work.”

John Henriques, who stood at the front of the line for most of the morning waiting for the doors to open, said he initially thought the store was opening at 6 a.m., and he wanted to be there to take advantage of any unadvertised specials. A Pahoa resident and cook at Island Naturals, he said he’d mostly shopped at the natural foods store the last few months, but he was glad to be able to buy at Malama some of the products that can’t easily be found elsewhere.

“I have a food truck in town, and I came here for the pork butt,” he said.

Just a spot or two behind Henriques stood Nanawale resident Sharon Hamm, who wore a big smile as she clutched the handle of her grocery cart.

“I remember when they first closed,” she said of the supermarket. “I was walking through, and I cried. Today is a very happy day for me. We’re seeing people coming back with joy on their faces.”

Hamm said purchasing extra gas to drive out of town to shop had taken a toll on her pocketbook while Malama Market was shut down.

“I’ve been through it all, since the very beginning,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of fears. And I’ve been driving to Keaau and Hilo regularly, and that’s been hard on the gas. Thank God prices went down, though.”

Wall said her company was well aware of the community’s dependence on Malama Market, and managers made every effort to get the store back up and running as soon as possible.

“We’ve always known how important it was to remain here,” she said. “Over the last arduous three months, there’s been a lot of watching and waiting, being concerned over what would happen.”

Along with reopening for business, Malama Market took the opportunity to renovate its interior. As part of the celebration, the store also offered giveaways for the first 250 shoppers. Various extras will be available to the public through Sunday, according to company spokeswoman Sheryl Toda.

In addition to the store, the CEO said she and her team were happy to reopen the gas station at the entrance to the Pahoa Market. The gas station and the supermarket closed Dec. 18, when the lava flow was estimated to be just a few days from possibly inundating the shopping center and crossing Highway 130.

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The advance of the flow front stalled shortly after the store’s closing, and shops have been returning in the past several weeks. The flow continues to spill out of the Pu‘u ‘O‘o vent on the East Rift Zone of Kilauea, but all activity appears to be about 8 miles from Pahoa and near the summit.

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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