An Oral History of Sidney Kosasa
Sidney Kosasa in his office, Honolulu, Hawai‘i, 2004. (COH photo)
The success of entrepreneur Sidney Kosasa can be attributed not only to his background, beginning with his store-keeping parents, but also to an aggressive and progressive view of business. Kosasa’s life history, community involvement, value system, business philosophy, and innovative practices are documented in this transcript volume.
Sidney S. Kosasa was born December, 1919 in Palolo Valley, O‘ahu. He is the younger of two sons born to Morita Kosasa and Mitsue Ito Kosasa, who immigrated to the islands from Okayama Prefecture, Japan in the early years of the twentieth century. Sidney Kosasa spent much of his childhood working in his parents’ grocery store, M. Kosasa Grocery and Butcher. Located on 10th Avenue in Palolo Valley, it carried groceries, meat, and dry goods.
“When I was a little kid I used to go to the houses. We used to call it chumontori [order-taker]. We used to take orders, whatever they want, and then we used to come back. [We packed] whatever canned goods, whatever they want, and we used to deliver it in the afternoon.”
Kosasa attended Palolo Elementary, Lili‘uokalani Intermediate, and McKinley High schools, graduating from McKinley in 1938. He then attended Sacramento Junior College for a year before attending the University of California at Berkeley where he earned a degree in pharmacy. In 1942, under Executive Order 9066, Kosasa, like other West Coast residents of Japanese ancestry, was placed in an internment camp. He was held at Tule Lake Internment Camp during World War II. While in camp, he married Minnie Ryugo, whose family had provided room and board to Kosasa in Sacramento.
“Well, it's wartime conditions, so there's nothing you can do. They only provided the bed and the bunk, and then cafeteria for each block . . . There was a little church that we got married in. And the reception in the cafeteria . . . We had the Hawaiian boys' group, the Hawaiian boys, they played music for us.”
Upon his release from Tule Lake in 1943, Kosasa began his career as a pharmacist at Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri. After one year, the Kosasas returned to Hawai‘i where Sidney Kosasa worked at a branch of Benson-Smith & Co., Ltd., a local drugstore chain. He eventually became the store’s manager.
In 1949, Kosasa formed a family corporation and opened Kaimuki Pharmacy on Wai‘alae Avenue. By 1959, Kosasa, along with wife Minnie Kosasa, was operating a total of eight drugstores on O‘ahu—including Kaimuki Pharmacy, Thrifty Drug Stores, and three concessions in the GEM Department Stores.
“The old days, when we had our drugstore like Kaimuki Pharmacy, we had a lot of showcases all around. But when Longs opened up in Downtown, we didn't know what it was, but I learned about self-service. I went to the Mainland, I see some other drugstores doing the same thing, so the fixtures goes with it, too. Before, everything was in the showcase, but now everything is exposed.”
Hawai‘i after 1959 was in the midst of a statehood-generated tourist boom, with Waikiki as the focal point. Upon his return from Miami where he attended a chain drugstore meeting, Kosasa opened the first ABC Store at Kalakaua Avenue and Beachwalk in Waikiki, selling prescription and over-the-counter drugs, sundries, tourist-oriented gift items, and snack foods. By 1975, Kosasa’s enterprises included seven ABC Stores, three Thrifty Drug Stores, and a pharmacy at the Medical Arts Building on South King Street. Five years later, the number grew to twenty-one. By 1985, twenty-seven ABC Stores, including two on Maui, were generating $45 million in annual sales.
“We started with the health and beauty. So if they want aspirin, or they want [something for an] upset stomach, we all had those things. So that was part of them coming in. And then, they want to get soft drinks, gum, candy, like that. So it's a matter of convenience. All the other shops are either [carrying] T-shirts, or aloha shirts, curios, but nobody carries food items.”
In 2001, at the time of the interviews, Kosasa’s chain included sixty stores—thirty-five in Waikiki alone, with stores on Maui, Guam, Saipan, and Las Vegas. Seven hundred employees worked in the business. He trained and promoted all store managers from within the company. A system of bonuses, profit sharing, and expansion to ensure long-term growth and stability was also established by Kosasa.
In addition to Minnie Kosasa, who has been the company’s vice-president and treasurer, the Kosasas’ four children have been actively involved in the business. All four serve on the company’s board of directors, with youngest son Paul now president and chief executive officer.
“One of the biggest things my mother taught us is to treat your employees well . . . So we feel, too, take care of them and give them an incentive to grow with the company. Not only monetary-wise, but prestige-wise, too. They could become managers. I feel all these years that took us, it’s for my family and all my friends. They helped me. I had a lot of people that helped me in the business.”
- Kosasa, Sidney, 82, pharmacist, ABC Stores founder
- Kodama-Nishimoto, Michi, research coordinator
- Nishimoto, Warren, COH director