Chances are, if you were a runny-nosed kid growing up in postwar Hawaii, you munched on Maebo’s “One-Ton Chips” at one time or another. Remember them? They came in clear cellophane bags, em blazoned with a red, white and blue design of a Charles Atlas type weight lifter heaving a barbell over his head. The barbell had the words “One Ton” on them.
I might have been the dumbest kid on the block, but I never quite figured out what the heck “One-Ton Chips” meant. I mean, they were light, crispy, sweet flour chips with a somewhat Asian taste and feel to them, and I never really thought too deeply about why such light and crispy chips were called “One-Ton.”
(Cut to 1988, two decades after these years of spending my nickels and dimes at Fujioka Store next to the Japanese Language School on snacks such as crack seed, mango seed, and “One-Ton Chips.”)
And here I am, in Maebo Noodle Factory’s front office, meeting with the Maebo family, finding out, in person, how their chips got its name.
Members of the Maebo family got together to reminisce about the growth of this little Hilo tradition at their factory location just outside of downtown Hilo, on Kilauea Avenue. Blane Maebo, the present manager and president, is the third generation of his family to be involved in the business. We were joined by his grandmother Koto, his father and mother Aketo and Rachael, uncle and aunt Masato and Shizuka, and aunt Toshiko Maebo Miyakaku.
Maebo Noodle Factory was started in 1950 when grandmother Koto Maebo began experimenting making her own noodles from scratch in her husband’s tofu-making facilities. Her husband Toshito was a peddler who sold vegetables, tofu and other food products. He also was a distributor for a small, hand cranked machine that cut dough into noodles. Grandma Koto used one of those machines to make her own noodles, mixing the dough by hand. “She used to experiment with all kinds of stuff,” Aketo says.
The family garage was converted into a little noodle-making factory for the enterprising Koto, and soon she had her two sons and six daughters helping out. Koto made fresh saimin, chow fun, and udon noodles, mixing each batch by hand, pushing them through the overtaxed machine with a bamboo stick. They also used the dough to make won ton pi, the small squares of dough used in making Chinese won ton. While Koto and the kids made their products, Toshito served as president and salesperson of the small family-run operation,drumming up business and buyers.
Then one day, three years after she perfected her noodle-making, Koto succeeded in using the same dough mix that she used for the won ton pi to make a new kind of chip. Using a bit of sugar, the little pieces of won ton pi were deep fried to make a sweet, crunchy snack, a kind of chip, so to speak.
Of course, they had to package it like other chips, so second son Aketo came up with a name and a design. He played on the word won ton, spelling it “One-Ton,” and came up with the idea of a weight lifter hoisting dumbbells over his head. Thus was born the now classic “One-Ton Chips.
Besides One-Ton Chips, Koto also experimented with making Japanese-style arare crackers and shrimp chips, although the company has discontinued producing these items for the present time.
As orders for noodles and chips grew, working in the converted family garage got to be too cramped. They moved to their present factory location in 1964. It remained a family business for a long time, with oldest son Masato acting as the company’s second president and second son Aketo as manager, and all the other family members and Masato and Toshito’s wives also helping out.
But time changes things, albiet slowly. Gone is the tedious method of mixing small batches of dough entirely by hand. Today, a machine mixes and cuts the dough. Fresh batches of saimin, chow fun or udon noodles are packed fresh daily without any preservatives and chips are fried in a special cooking room in the morning. Another machine packs the chips into little plastic bags. The work is still labor-intensive, however, as people still have to prepare the ingredients, cook the chips and oversee the packing and dough machines. The Maebo Noodle Factory presently employs about 17 mostly part-time workers.
The factory manages a monthly output of roughly 32,000 pounds of assorted fresh noodles and chips. Their distribution is state wide, and they also send their noodles as far east as Nevada, where restaurants in the California Hotel, famous for hosting local people on tours to Las Vegas, use their noodles to make local style saimin.
Although brothers Aketo and Masato, former manager and president, respectively, and grandmother Koto, 89, are all retired, it remains essentially a family business. Blane Maebo, 31 years old, continues the tradition as the present manager and president, and he is aided by his mother Rachael and aunty Toshiko.
Blane Maebo is quick to defer credit for the long term health of the company to the ingenuity of his grandmother and the business sense of his father and uncle. A graduate of the University of Hawaii at Hilo, with a degree in business management, he knew that he was being groomed to take over the business even while in college. “That’s what I was really going to school for; to take over eventually.” says Blane, “But I found out that the theories (learned in school) were already being put into practice by my dads folks…My parents in their own way employed the same techniques, but didn’t really label it as such. I guess by experience, it worked out that was the best way.
Being successful at running a small business is hard, and Blane admits that it’s still a struggle, although the company’s doing okay so far. Rather than trying to expand with different kinds of products, Blane wants to concentrate on various noodles and One-Ton Chip production, building a stronger base of sales in the local market. Selling their noodles out of state may be hard, logistically, but Blane says that they are in the process of building up mail-order sales for their One-Ton Chips. Tourists who picked up a bag or two have enjoyed the taste of this made only in Hawaii product and have written numerous requests for more bags of chips to be sent through the mail. “We’re trying to concentrate on the Hawaii base first, then to mail order and move out (to other ventures)…” Blane says. “So far we’ve been lucky. We just keep a low profile. But I guess if it does catch on, people may try to imitate it and make some profit off of that.” But for now, the fresh Maebo noodles and “One-Ton” won ton chips, invented in the garage of grandmother Koto Maebo, will continue to be another unique meibutsu (specialty) of quiet old Hilo town.
Printed Friday, July 15, 1988 in “The Hawaii Herald” by Wayne Muromoto