A tale of two markets

Summit + Market City Shopping Center

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Text James Charisma

Market City Shopping Center is Hawaiʻi’s oldest family-owned shopping center, bringing families together in Hawaii and serving the Kaimukī, Kapahulu and Mōʻiliʻilicommunities.

In 1946, three families came together and pooled their life savings to purchase a 3.5 acre vegetable patch in east Honolulu. Their dream was to one day create a thriving business in what was, at the time, empty farmland and a big monkeypod tree. Today that tree sits at the center of what is now Market City Shopping Center.

“It was a handshake deal,” says Market City President Sandra Au Fong. “And it was built on trust and family values.”

Sandra Au Fong’s father-in-law Hiram Fong was one of the original men who secured the property. A Harvard-educated, former US Army Air Forces Major and attorney in Honolulu, Fong would go on to become one of Hawai‘i’s first United States Senators and in 1952, co-founded Finance Factors, one of Hawai‘i’s first industrial and consumer loan companies for the islands’ growing minority populations looking to start businesses or purchase homes.

His guidance and business prowess helped to shape the early days of the retail venue. Just two years after acquiring the space, Market City Shopping Center opened to the public as Hawai‘i’s first modern shopping plaza with a never-before-seen type of store in the islands: a supermarket aptly named “Foodland.”

Its founder was a man named Maurice J. “Sully” Sullivan, who had first arrived in America from Ireland in 1927, packing potatoes at the A&P Tea Company in Pennsylvania. With the onset of World War II, Sullivan was sent to Hawai‘i and worked as a buyer for the commissary, where he met See Goo Lau, owner of Lanikai Store in Kailua.

"She befriended him and introduced him to local farmers, and they became friends," Jenai Sullivan Wall (Sully's daughter and the current head of Foodland) said in an interview with the former Honolulu Star-Bulletin. "After the war, she tried to get him to work at her store in Lanikai."

Instead, he persuaded Lau to open a new type of one-stop food and merchandise outlet store in Hawai‘i. In a time where vegetables had to be purchased from market, meat from a butcher, dry goods from grocers and so forth, going to one destination instead of many was an elegant solution that Hawai‘i residents would be eager to embrace. And there was no better home for this new type of “supermarket” than with Lau and Sullivan’s mutual friends, the Fongs, at the newly constructed Market City Shopping Center.

Foodland and Market City opened on May 6, 1948, and both were an immediate hit. The crowds that gathered outside Foodland were so large that the front doors had to be locked, with only a few people allowed inside at a time. Store managers had to close up shop midday so they could restock the shelves.

Over the next few years, both Foodland and Market City would take off. Market City became home to some of Hawai‘i’s most iconic tenants, including Wiki Wiki Burger, L&L Hawaiian Barbecue, and wholesale lumber and retailer Timber Town. The Foodland chain quickly grew, with new locations popping up on School Street, on Beretania Street, and in Aina Haina Shopping Center. Sullivan would go on to marry Joanna Lau, owner See Goo Lau’s daughter, and over the next several decades, Foodland would grow to become Hawai‘i’s largest locally-owned supermarket chain with 32 locations.

Market City continued to develop but hit a snag in 1984 when Timber Town, which occupied roughly 50,000 square feet of retail space out of the 87,000 total square foot that the shopping center had available, pulled out. With them went much of Market City’s cash flow.

Hiram Fong reached out to his son, Marvin, to help manage Market City. Marvin Fong’s background was in law, and along with his wife Sandra, who previously worked as a successful commercial real estate agent with Monroe & Friedlander (now Colliers International), spent approximately $100,000 rebuilding the center to accommodate smaller businesses. They even took college courses in shopping center management, even going so far as Michigan State University to learn more about the industry and what needed to be done.

“The only way to learn about business is from the bottom up,” Sandra Fong says. “We did what was necessary to get Market City back on track.”

Within three years, the center was profitable once more and growing steadily. They brought in big brands such as Fun Factory, Blockbuster, and Ben Franklin, and began hosting more community events, such as annual lighting ceremonies for the big monkeypod tree during the holidays, and lion dances for the Lunar New Year.

“We’d have 50 people maybe show up for the first few events, but after a while, we’d have 500 people,” Fong recalls. “I love the events, seeing what new tenants are doing, finding new opportunities to give people a reason to visit Market City.”

Today, Market City is bigger and better than ever, with 100 percent of the entire property leased and more than tens of thousands of both locals and tourists visiting the shopping center on a regular basis. The Fongs created the Market City Foundation, which has given more than $100,000 in student scholarships to deserving students in the adjacent high schools towards their college education.

The Fongs even had to recently move their offices from the back of Market City to up the street on Waiʻalae, because new tenant Walgreens expanded the retail space available in the former Fun Factory location to include the entire back portion of the building, converting offices to shopping space.

The Fongs don’t mind though; this is exactly the sort of change and new direction that’s kept Market City as a leading commercial center in Hawai‘i for more than half a century. “When our tenants are successful, we’re successful,” Fong says. The sentiment was true for Foodland so many years ago–and still stands true today.

“We want to send a warm mahalo to the people of Hawai‘i and the communities we serve, for helping us become the shopping center we are today.” Sandra Au Fong says. “We look forward to many more years of being your friend in the community."

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Summit is Hawaii's magazine of ideas and style for the global citizen. We're named for Queen Kapiolani's motto, "kulia i ka nuu," strive for the summit. Summit is available on fine newsstands throughout North America and the Asia-Pacific region.

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Ikaika Hussey
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Mae Ariola
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Will Caron
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Karen Shishido
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James Charisma