Editor’s note: Only the brave would dare to open a small business during a global pandemic. This is the second in a four-part series celebrating entrepreneurs who launched their ventures under the shadow of COVID-19.
A rocky start in the middle of the pandemic left Gloria Kobayashi uncertain about the future of her husband’s gallery until business began to pick up after the return of tourism.
Kobayashi manages daily operations at R.K. Woods Gallery on Keawe Street in downtown Hilo. The gallery features handcrafted wood art pieces, wall decor and furniture made by Ray Kobayashi.
The Kobayashis had plans to open in February, but held off when COVID-19 began spreading across the globe. They opened the gallery officially on July 31 to a quiet, and slow, start.
“We had some traffic, but it was very slow in the beginning,” Gloria Kobayashi said. “I was really worried until (November). We started getting much more business.”
Gloria noted that when tourism returned to the island, she began seeing more traffic at the store.
“We had some visitors from California buy a few pieces, as well as some people from other islands,” Gloria said. “We have many pieces that catch people’s eyes as they walk past.”
R.K. Gallery is prone to heavy foot traffic because it’s located next to Jackie Rey’s Ohana Grill, Bears’ Coffee and the Booch Bar in downtown Hilo.
“Our neighbors have been so welcoming, and I think we have such a great location,” Gloria said last month. “With the way things are going right now, I think many of us will have a good holiday season.”
The couple met at a real estate convention in Honolulu before Ray Kobayashi realized he had more fun building homes than selling them.
He started a contracting business called R.K. Builders in 1974 and has built more than 600 homes in East Hawaii. He began using locally grown wood inside homes and stored koa, mango, ohia, robusta and sugi pine in a warehouse where he would craft furniture with the island woods.
When building furniture and art pieces, Ray Kobayashi and woodworkers affiliated with his company hand select, dry, mill and build all of the furniture from start to finish. The team makes sure to use selective materials that originate from thriving forests that have capacity for sustainable resource management.
He decided to use his woodworking skills to open a gallery and furniture store when he was told he had to remove the wood from the floor of his warehouse.
“He signed a five-year lease without telling me,” Gloria Kobayashi joked while working in the gallery. “I’d never thought we’d open a furniture store, but here we are.”
When their opening day was delayed because of the virus, the Kobiyashis took time to create a website that showcases current furniture and decor available at the gallery, as well as offers different services to people who might be interested.
Ray and his team of woodworkers offer residential and commercial remodeling and custom cabinetry, digital fabrication, custom furniture, custom home decor and architectural features.
If buyers plan to purchase something at the gallery, Gloria takes the time to tell them where their piece came from and even has photos of the trees available in the gallery to show customers.
“Getting one of these pieces, especially a koa piece, is so rare and unique,” Gloria said. “I think we have something special here, and I’m excited to see where this goes.”
R.K. Woods Gallery is open from Wednesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
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