Popular local deli closing at the end of September
LAHAINA – The No Ka Oi Deli is a longtime tradition in Lahaina, almost 100 years (in 2017).
Its location and name have changed over the years, and the faces are somewhat different; but its recipe for success remains constant: dedication, loyalty and family, with a huge dash of good old hard work.
Let’s not forget the key ingredient and one of their main draws: Hop Wo Bread and Biscuits!
So it is with “bitter sweetness” that Laurie Lei (Kam) and Alton DeGama Jr. recently announced the closing of No Ka Oi Deli on Sept. 30, 2016, at Anchor Square, 222 Papalaua St.
In the beginning, 1917, it was Charlie Kam, Laurie Lei’s grandfather, who was the proprietor of Hop Wo Store at 728 Front St.
Living above the family establishment since birth, Laurie Lei recalls working alongside her mom, Carolyn Kam, and uncle, Richard Kam, since she could walk.
The now-41-year-old is a true descendent of the Mom and Pop stores on Front Street, when back in the day freshly steamed manapua, char sui pork and small pies were served on Saturdays; and, on Sundays she watched the locals line up at 6 a.m. for the ever-popular Hop Wo bread, block biscuits, cinnamon snails and twist doughnuts.
It was a sad day in Lahaina when they closed their doors in 1985; but the 1993 Lahainaluna High School graduate did not forget, carrying the life lessons she learned from childhood to the No Ka Oi Deli.
The Kam-DeGama eatery opened in the late summer of 1997 with Laurie Lei at the helm and mom Carolyn and her life partner and high school sweetheart Alton DeGama by her side – a formula for almost instant success.
“We started this when we were 21 years old,” Laurie Lei told the Lahaina News.
“We do sandwiches, salads, plate lunches, burgers; we deliver in town and to some of the hotels.”
The mom, Carolyn, is the delivery person, retiring come September.
“It is time for her to retire, relax a little and enjoy life,” Laurie Lei observed.
“During her 19 years (after almost a lifetime of baking at Hop Wo Store), she went from a moped to a car,” Laurie Lei added with a laugh-out-loud (LOL).
Dani Abbey is saddened by the news of their closing in September.
“I am a front desk agent at the Honua Kai Resort and Spa and have been ordering take-out from them for as long as I have been here, eight years.
“I will surely miss the excellent service,” Abbey continued, “the awesome fresh salads and sandwiches and, above all, will miss Grandma walking through the lobby with our order (CLASSIC)!”
“Ninety-five percent of our clientele is local,” Alton said.
“Local being,” Laurie Lei interjected, “they all live here and are working class folks. We are totally word-of-mouth. Our salads are fresh. We are clean; we are affordable.”
Their most popular asset is their sandwich bread made daily by Alton, plus their special ingredient.
“Alton makes about 100-150 sub rolls a day starting at three in the morning. We tried to purchase bread to offset the load, but our customers won’t budge,” Laurie Lei said.
“Our secret is we care!” Laurie Lei confided. “It’s our TLC we put in everything. We touch everything that leaves our shop A recipe is just a recipe; it’s our TLC that I feel makes the difference.”
Laurie Lei and Alton have kept their hearts and kitchen open – maybe that is what will be missed most.
During the interview, the Lahaina News had a quick taste of the DeGama menu.
It included a hefty dose of family, friends and employees, going in-and-out through the swinging back door. They interrupted and joined the discussion with their heartfelt opinions, laughter and stories.
It was a five-star tasting.
Maile Kinimaka (Lahainaluna Class of 2013) has worked for No Ka Oi Deli since 2012. She will cherish the experience.
“I’ve learned from them that work is important, but family means everything. They work all the time: Uncle is up at 3 a.m. to bake bread; Auntie works on boat caterings after the shop is closed; they have Hop Wo bread to sell on the first Sunday of every month; numerous Costco runs each week but they’d put it all on hold for a little bit for their family, so that they can enjoy a vacation together, spend a holiday together, enjoy their daughter Whitney’s ballet recital or May Day performance,” Kinimaka penned in an e-mail.
Laurie Lei explained how the tides have changed.
“I came from a family where the store came first. I am a different generation; now, it is family first.”
The DeGama ‘Ohana is connected to its beloved West Side community through donations, silent auctions, contributions and a long line of relations.
“Alton Jr. attended Sacred Hearts School from K-8 grade as well as his dad and grandma, and now Whitney.
“Patricia Maielua and Lincoln Maielua are Alton’s Aunty and Uncle, but like his hanai parents, making their daughter, Ui Mauelua Castro, like his sister,” she said.
“Lincoln Maielua (who used to work in the downtown post office) used to help us set up the tables in the morning and deliver our breakfast caterings and boat caterings every morning. Lincoln passed a couple of years ago after he retired from the post office.
“It’s really always been a family business,” Laurie Lei described.
Longtime friend Rae Kahaiali’i speaks highly of their good works.
“I feel the community will miss their generosity. Alton and Laurie Lei have contributed to this community immensely. Countless times these two have been called to kokua, and they have ALWAYS done so and graciously.
“You know,” she added, “I work on different nonprofit events and fundraisers throughout the year, and they have never hesitated to lend a hand when I have asked or even when I didn’t ask. They are quick to ask if they can lend a helping hand if they know of your hardship or if there is a fundraiser. They’ll even sit with people and figure out how to create a successful fundraiser for your cause, no matter how busy they are.”
What’s next for the dynamic duo?
“This is like a baby that you raise,” Laurie Lei said, with a faraway look (to Vegas, perhaps?) in her eyes.
“Nineteen years later, we are tired. We would like to relax. We would have been willing to sell at this point; but since there are no leases, we are being helped out the door to end this journey.”
Although looking back with nostalgic remembrances, Kahaiali’i was spirited: “It will truly be a sad day when No Ka Oi Deli closes its doors. Twenty years of great food and a great company. They will be remembered as one of the ‘Greats!’ Up there with Okazuya, Sushiya, Golden Palace and Aunty Pattie’s Kitchen. Amazing local kine grinds that leaves you wanting for more. No Ka Oi Deli is truly ‘The Best Deli’… Automatic!”
Until the end of September, store hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.