A family's love for Love's hurts as historic Hawaii bakery nears end

Andrew Gomes, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
·8 min read

Mar. 12—Several generations of kamaaina families have loved Love's Bakery. But for one family the impending shutdown of the nearly 170-year-old business hits at a deeper level.

"For me it feels like a family death, " said Debbie Williams, a great-great-granddaughter of the company's founder, Robert A. Love. "The news of the closure has hit hard."

Love's, which for much of its storied history has been Hawaii's dominant producer of bread, doughnuts and other baked goods for stores and restaurants, hasn't been controlled by the Love family since 1960. Yet for numerous descendents of the bakery's founder, the approaching March 31 end of Love's announced March 1 represents the end of a legacy.—RELATED :

"My family successfully operated the business for 117 years, " said Williams, who lived in Lanikai with her now 97-year-old mother, Marian Love Williams, until moving to Florida seven years ago so the two could be closer to other family members.

"It's our history, our legacy, and a testament to the courage, perseverance and hard work of my (ancestors ) and their employees, " she said. "This feels like a death to our family. We are grieving the loss. Our hearts go out to the hundreds losing their jobs."

Williams added she isn't telling her mother about the approaching demise of Love's out of concern it would devastate her.

Deborah Candace Love, a local doctor whose father and grandfather helped run Love's more than 50 years ago, said she was shocked to hear about the closure.

"I'm terribly sad and grief-stricken, " she said. "I'm heartbroken that a highly regarded business that is part of Hawaii's history and fond childhood memories has announced permanent closure."

Uilani Tacgere of Waianae is a seventh-generation descendent of the bakery's founder. She has feelings of loss even though her largely Native Hawaiian line of the family got disconnected from Love's ownership in the second generation.

"It's in our blood, " she said.

Williams said finding a way to save Love's would not only preserve 231 jobs, a well-known brand and locally made food, but it would "mean the world " to her and other members of the founding family.

Some consumers also are promoting visions to rescue Love's, which has nearly 1, 800 commercial customers through which roughly 400, 000 bread loaves are distributed weekly along with other baked goods under various brand names including Love's, Wonder Bread, Roman Meal, Hostess, Little Debbie and Mrs. Freshly's.

Waikiki resident Brian Joy suggested in a recent Honolulu Star-Advertiser letter to the editor that Lanai's billionaire owner, Larry Ellison, could acquire and sustain what he called an iconic local business.

Donna Yap of Kalihi Valley said in a recent letter that many small contributions from longtime residents could help, perhaps beginning with a GoFundMe campaign.

Russell Suga of Chinatown wrote that the government, which has sacrificed economic activity to protect people from COVID-19, should help save Love's.

Chuck Choi, a local attorney representing Love's, declined to discuss whether any possibility exists for the current local owners of Love's to save the company.

"That ship has sailed, " he said in an email.

Other Love's representatives did not respond to a similar request.

The company's March 1 mass layoff notice to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations said Love's management unsuccessfully sought financing to stay in business and that COVID-19 safety restrictions depressed sales and hampered receipt of ingredients and equipment.

Love's also said it was seriously delinquent on rent and couldn't qualify for a second forgivable federal Paycheck Protection Program loan after receiving what government records show was an initial loan of between $2 million and $5 million in April.

"With the decline in revenue and the increasing expenses to keep the bakery running, we have made the difficult decision to cease operations as a faltering business, " the layoff notice said.

To Williams the notion that Love's is about to disappear is especially tough, given that the company survived the bubonic plague, an overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, the 1918 flu pandemic, two world wars, two fires that temporarily halted business and several shocks to the local economy.

The death of Robert Love only seven years after he established Love's Biscuit & Bread Co. on Nuuanu Street in 1851 was another challenge.

Originally from Scotland, Love came to Hawaii on a ship from Australia with his wife, Margaret, and three sons. After the founder's death, sons Robert Jr., James and William ran the bakery, which has had various names including Honolulu Steam Biscuit Bakery.

Robert Jr. later ended up controlling the business, and his wife, Fanny, took over upon his death in 1883.

According to an ad in the Daily Commercial Pacific Advertiser newspaper from 1885, Fanny Love promoted the bakery as offering ship bread on short notice, rebaked old bread and generally "every description of plain and fancy bread and biscuits " in conjunction with a coffee saloon and chophouse.

"Everything first class, at reasonable rates, " the ad said.

One of Fanny Love's several children, William A. Love, later led the company as president. His son, Robert Addison Love, also became a top executive who in the early 1950s took his young daughter, now a 73-year-old doctor living in Makiki, to the bakery that provided comfort to the little girl's stomach and feet.

In those days the bakery was in Iwilei, and Deborah Love recalled always wanting her dad to take her there so she could eat fresh warm bread and let dough on the floor build up on her bare feet like moccasin shoes.

"My little feet would build up dough pads, " she said, calling it one of her fondest childhood memories of the family business.

In 1960 Love's owners—some 114 family members and employees—sold the business to mainland giant Continental Baking Co. for $3.2 million worth of Continental stock.

According to a Honolulu Star-Bulletin story at the time, Love's earned a $300, 000 profit on $5.1 million in sales in 1959 but wanted protection against potential economic shocks that would be harder to withstand as an independent business operating in only one state.

"Having only one plant here we were subject to the perils—economic, competitive and labor—involved in any one-plant operation, " company President Alva Steadman was quoted as saying. "Diversification is a tremendous element of strength. One unfortunate experience means little to (Continental ). It would be fatal to us."

Eight years later Love's became part of International Telephone and Telegraph Corp. under Continental.

First Baking Co. of Japan bought Love's in 1981 and rebranded the business as Daiichiya-Love's Bakery for the next 27 years.

In 2008 local management acquired Love's from First Baking in a deal led by the then-CEO of Hawaii National Bank, Warren Luke, with support from U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye and representatives of the Hawaii Food Industry Association and International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The restructured company partly owned by Love's president at the time, Mike Waters, planned to invest $10 million in the business.

Part of the deal, however, included Love's leasing the valuable Kalihi factory site from First Baking, which originally paid $5 million for the land and sold it in 2013 for $14 million to a company led by local real estate investor Duane Kurisu, according to property rec ­ords. Two years ago Japanese firm Clathas LLC paid $27 million for the site leased to Love's.

Even during its decades of mainland and overseas ownership, Love's promoted its family ties.

The bakery's Kalihi factory has long displayed a collection of family memorabilia arranged by Dottie Pugay-Correa, a Love's employee and company historian who also helped arrange Love family reunions, the last of which was held in 2008.

"There really was a Mr. Love, " a 1972 ad in the Star-Bulletin states. "His name was Robert Love and he was everything you might expect—a master baker."

This ad featured a black-and-white drawing of the company founder's son, and a painting of the same image hangs on a wall in Deborah Love's home.

Another piece of family heritage that Love holds dear as part of a small collection is a framed proclamation from Gov. George Ariyoshi declaring July 18, 1976, the bakery's 125th anniversary, as Robert Love Day in recognition of a "special " immigrant who received a bakery license from a minister of King Kamehameha III only a month after arriving in Honolulu.

On March 5 the doctor drove down to the bakery's factory outlet to buy more Love's-branded merchandise, including T-shirts, bags and pencils.

"I was all sad, " she recalled. "There's something about the name Love."