As the only purveyor of general merchandise between Mountain View and Volcano, Hirano Store is the unofficial center of the Glenwood community.
And for many who drive on Highway 11 between Hilo and Volcano or Ka‘u, it’s a regular stop for breakfast, beverages, sandwiches, plate lunches — and Hirano’s famous chili.
But when Naojiro and Shige Hirano, who came from Shizuoka, Japan, to work for Ola‘a Sugar Co. opened their store Feb. 22, 1918, few islanders had automobiles. Naojiro specifically chose Glenwood because it was the southern terminus of the railway that ran along the Hamakua Coast through Hilo.
The upper Puna landmark will celebrate its milestone 100th anniversary from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday with live entertainment, plus free chili, hot dogs and drinks, while supplies last.
“It’s a bit stressful planning for the 100th anniversary, but we’re excited about it,” said Eric Inouye, the store’s third-generation owner.
It’s obvious Hirano Store occupies a special spot in the hearts of Glenwood’s residents.
“You can meet about 90 percent of the community here,” said Lowell Altizer, who was sitting and chatting Tuesday with Lance Benevides at the picnic table in front of the store. “We got the table here for community meetings.”
Benevides, who worked at the former Ka‘u Sugar Co. mill in Pahala, has been a customer for almost a half-century.
“We were re-roofing the mill. We’d stop here early in the morning, and they’d be open,” Benevides said. “We’d grab our sandwiches and all their stuff. It was excellent. I came here from the early years when Eric’s aunties ran it. They were beautiful people and ’til today, nothing changed, for a hundred years, except the outside paint job.”
Success for Hirano Store, however, came at a price. Naojiro Hirano, who also served as Glenwood postmaster and started and taught at his own Japanese language school, was taken into custody by the U.S. government on Dec. 7, 1941, the same day Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Confined at first at Kilauea Military Camp in Volcano, he spent almost four years in mainland internment camps. Shige ran the store with three of the couple’s children, Wataru, Yuriko and Momoye, until Naojiro returned in November 1945.
When the 71-year-old Naojiro lost his battle with leukemia on Oct. 16, 1962, son Wataru and his wife, Shinae, assumed the store’s helm.
The old Volcano Highway was widened in the late 1960s and the original wooden store building was razed to make way for the highway construction.
“The original store was where the highway is now,” Inouye said. “There was an old highway that was in front of the store. So when they built the new highway back in ’67 and ’68, they had to relocate this store back because it would’ve gone right through the store.”
The current steel structure was completed in late 1968, with its official grand opening taking place March 3, 1969, the birthday of its founder, Naojiro Hirano. It was then that Hirano Store added liquor to its inventory. At that time, it also was a gas station, with a large red, white and blue Chevron sign proudly presiding over Volcano Highway.
Wataru and Shinae Hirano ran the store for another 15 years, retiring in 1984. Inouye, the youngest son of Shinae’s oldest sister, Mitsue Inouye, bought the store and is still going strong more than three decades later.
“I cater to the locals and that’s what’s kept me going. You take care of the community, take care of the customers and they come back,” Inouye said.
While careful not to mess with success, Inouye has made some changes. He stopped selling gasoline in 1999 when Environmental Protection Agency laws governing gas stations and storage tanks were tightened.
“I closed down the gas — which is a good thing because it was losing money,” he said.
Inouye also added an item that turned out to be a big winner — chili. The original version wasn’t what customers flock to Hirano Store for now, however.
“I served chili out of a can — just warm ’em and serve,” Inouye said. “I did that for awhile, but it was bland. People didn’t like it. It wasn’t a good seller. So I started adding stuff, a little of this, a little of that. Finally, I decided if I was gonna add all that stuff, might as well just do it from scratch. That’s how it came about.”
Manager and cook Kaleo Akiona, who’s worked at Hirano Store for 13 years, cooked and dished up the store’s signature chili on Tuesday. Their unique take on chili has, in addition to ground beef, Portuguese sausage, bacon and just enough jalapenos to spice up the broth. But the kicker is olives, which add a tang not usually associated with chili.
Among the fans of Hirano Store’s chili, according to Inouye, is renowned chef Alan Wong.
“I have a friend who is good friends with him,” he said. “He brought him up here to try the chili and he said that’s the best chili he ever ate. Coming from a chef like him, I feel pretty good about that.”
The chili has won over skeptics, Inouye said, including a couple visiting from Texas, the cradle of chili.
“They asked, ‘What you guys known for?’ I said, ‘We’re known for our chili.’ And they just kind of laughed,” he explained. “They said, ‘We’re from Texas. We’re the chili people.’
“The husband said he’d try the chili, and the wife said, ‘Oh, I’ll just take a bite of yours.’ So the husband bought this chili. He said, ‘Oh, this is good.’ The wife tasted it and said, ‘I’ve gotta have my own.’”
There’s always someone who can’t be won over, though, including a guy who wasn’t pleased that the chili was served local-style, with rice.
“He got mad and threw the chili right at me,” Inouye said. “To hold back the anger was, like, really hard. But he got arrested for that. I called the cops.”
As it turns out, chili wasn’t the only projectile launched in or at Hirano Store. On at least one occasion, Inouye said, an argument across the highway erupted into gunfire.
“A couple bullets hit the building,” he said. Fortunately, there were no human casualties.
The store’s walls also have borne witness to the blessed — perhaps, even miraculous — as on a day about 20 years ago.
“A customer who was pregnant came in. She was in labor; she said she was giving birth,” Hirano said. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll call 911.’ You know, Keaau is 10 minutes away. I called them. They told me, ‘Oh, you’re gonna have to deliver this baby.’ I said, ‘No, 10 minutes, you’re gonna be here.’ They said, ‘No, that baby’s gonna come out.’
“Sure enough, the baby came out before they came. So they told me what to do, what to get. They told me to tie the umbilical cord. But lucky I had customers. I had one nurse who was a tourist, that just so happened, she stopped by and asked us what was happening.
“She helped us, and the baby came.”
Which was, as it turned out, a healthy boy.
“Right after the baby came out, Fire Rescue pulled up and took them to the hospital.”
Inouye said the mother and son, now a young man, still stop by.
“You know, every day’s a new adventure here. You see different things, different people, different memories,” he said, and smiled.
“My parents always told me when I was young, ‘You gotta work hard to get what you want.’ They’d always tell me, ‘You work hard. You’ll be all right.’
“And I’m all right.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.