By: Daniel Tossounian
Oahu’s Chinatown district is comparable to most of the other Chinatowns in major US cities in that one will invariably encounter the eclectic and ubiquitous charms which are unique to the Chinatown brand if you will. Tea houses, eastern medicinal shops, specialty stores and exotic ‘hole in the wall’ eating places as well as full service dining restaurants offering tasty entrees from the mainland…Chinese mainland, all are part and parcel of the Honolulu Chinatown experience. Adding accent to this movable cultural feast is the rustic charm of Chinatown’s historic buildings that have preserved the feel of an earlier era in Hawaii.
Traveling north on Hotel street one will encounter a gaggle of distinct watering holes and eating places along with the occasional earthy tattoo parlor or exotic nail salon which simply are not found in the more commercial and glitzy Waikiki district or even downtown Honolulu itself. Moreover Chinatown is an incubator of sorts for innovative businesses conjured up by imaginative entrepreneurs whose dreams are facilitated by the more relaxed atmosphere and possibly more forgiving rents which can help foster the emergence of groundbreaking or, dare we say, even avant-garde enterprises whose specialized goods and services are found no where else on island.
One such Chinatown located business which might meet this aforementioned definition is, Wing Ice Cream Parlor and Shaved Ice. Nestled just a few easy steps from the corner of Maunakea and N. Pauahi St. this little ice cream shop distinguishes itself to the casual passerby with a singularly unique wood carved marquee which displays the company name. A simple rustic door upon which hangs a small neon sign invites the potential customer to enter the shop however a blackboard strip bearing the chalked in names of people of color who have experienced injustice at the hands of authorities immediately indicates that this is not your typical ice cream parlor but one which combines social awareness with its confectionery treats…and that makes for an interesting experience.
Upon entering that initial unique impression continues with another of the five senses in that the spicy aroma of turmeric spice is immediately detectable. Nevertheless the luscious smell of large amounts of packed ice cream under a glass cooler makes itself known and intermingles with the pungent spices making for an interesting sweet and savory aroma. The singularity of this particular shop further reveals an eclectic assortment of flavors when perusing the various choices of ice creams in their respective tubs. Various combinations of flavors and tastes which are not available anywhere else on island or anywhere else at all, look back at you invitingly, as if they are tempting you out of your ice cream well worn comfort zones, aka vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and/or the usual reliable concoctions we have come to know over the years.
Surely one can find a measure of variety in those more familiar offerings provided by the usual suspects…aka Big Ice Cream for lack of better terminology. After all, thirty-one flavors… is thirty-one. But Wings Ice cream seems to start where other places leave off. For instance, where can one request a scoop of roasted garlic, Mayan Xocolatl (roughly translated chocolate with cinnamon and cayenne) or a black sesame sorbet? These exotic choices would no doubt perplex servers at a more mainstream ice cream place, but at Wings you’ll get your scoop served right away. And for those more traditional ice cream lovers there’s good news as well. Their vanilla and chocolate are unbelievably delicious.
Wing Ice Cream Parlor & Shave Ice
1145 Maunakea St. Suite 4, (Entrance on Pauahi st.) Honolulu, Hawaii 96817
I sat down with Miller Royer the young proprietor of Wings and asked him about his experience as an entrepreneur- small business owner operating the only independently owned ice ream shop in downtown Honolulu.
Me: Can you give me a little about your background?
I grew up here in Chinatown. I noticed that we never had an ice cream shop down here, so I decided to fill that niche and sorta help to improve the community I grew up in.
Me: You mean you had no familiar ice cream store names down here ?
No The closest was the McCully side you know it was a bit of a drive or else you could go to the grocery store.
Me: The grocery store of course. Ahh do you have a special liking for ice cream ?
I think everybody does.
Me: I mean from a business point of view. I mean some people have a liking for pizza, or burgers or something else , you just thought ice cream was a good opportunity?
Yeah, when I first opened I felt like it was something that was missing in the community. When I first opened I was selling Dryers ice cream, you know store bought kind and when you read the label there’s things you can’t even pronounce, so I had learned to make ice cream when I worked at a restaurant and I started making all my own and it got real popular so I got rid of the Dryers.
Me: Ok, did you research those recipes ?
Yeah I already had learned recipes and I modified it towards my own liking. It just evolved over the years.
Me: I notice that some of your flavors are kind of ‘unorthodox’. We’re you purposefully trying to be different from the big corporate ice cream places?
Ahh it didn’t start out that way , but I realize I had a blank canvass and you can basically make anything so I kind of went with that so I try to shook people a little bit and get them out of their bubble to try something different.
Me: Hmm, after all… what law says we all have to have chocolate vanilla or strawberry, right?
Hehe, yeah. You know a lot of the flavors come from stuff that I grew up eating, different local treats that we have. For instance I make a lihing mango and the black Sesame is something the Chinese use in their desserts. Also there’s the guava and others like that.
Me: Very interesting. Are you into local flavors and organic?
Oh yeah , I’m all about local. I like to get fruit grow locally from the farmer. Different herbs. Whatever I can get , taro. I ty to get local and organic whoever possible. In fact right now I have a poha berry which is from a local farmer.
Me: Wow, isn’t that something! Ice cream that is sustainable. Ok then I also notice that the environment of the shop is a little different…could say? How would you describe it?
Well it’s kinda an extension of my place. I have things here I like , like the guitar in the corner and the art and the records.
Me: Now I know you’ve been around for a while. Since 2012?
Me: Ok so you’ve already beaten the odds of a small business being open after five years. How would you say you’ve done business wise ?
It took probably 2 or 3 years before I started to turn a profit and 4 years before I actually started to collect an actual paycheck. It was ok, year over year growth until the pandemic hit.
Me: Let’s talk about that. As I mentioned to another business owner. The pandemic hit like an avalanche. Almost everything changed over night. Everything closed down. How did it hit your business? Did you close your doors?
I didn’t close up but everything shifted to take out.
Me: How did it affect your bottom line?
It was a huge drop. There was very little walk in business. People were afraid to go out.
Me:Ice cream seems to be a very social business? People like getting out and having a nice treat together. The pandemic made that all but impossible.
Me: What made you get through?
It was very difficult. I had to use money that I saved, yeah. Even though there was business coming in it wasn’t enough. The business shifted to pints to go.
People couldn’t hang out and have ice cream. It dropped my profit margin even further.
Me: What percentage would you say your income went down?
It was over 50 percent and at times 75 percent.
Me: Wow, that is a hard hit. You’re one of the smaller boats weathering the storm.Costco ,Walmart Amazon…etc they’re the ocean liners. they’ll be fine won’t they? But for you, the independent businesses, well that has been a very rough ride.
It was kind of depressing at first. But it was happening to everyone and I later saw that with people coming out to get ice cream there was a little light at the end of the tunnel. It made them happy and it kind of has kept me going too. I had to think that even though I was losing money it was like a public service. You know to keep peoples spirits up. Every time I would get really down and thinking of closing up , somebody would tell me how they appreciate what I was doing and that kind of kept me going.
Me: Well as we conclude what do you see for a post Covid future, for you that is?
Ahh for me it’s not over yet.
Me: Do you yet see the storm behind you?
I need to get my boat into a dock and get some repairs.
I think it’s like a total reset. I spent seven years building up my business and it was like I got everything wiped out and I got to start over.
Me: You think you’re gonna do it ? I mean you showed the original creativity and drive as an entrepreneur and a business operator. Can that initial drive comeback and get you your business back ? You did it once already, can you do it again?
Ahh, yeah I’ve already sacrificed this much, I can start over yes. It would kind of lame to just stop now. But it (closing) has crossed my mind a lot.
Me: You’ve made it this far.
Me: Finally have government entities helped you. Whether local, state of federal?
Yes, definitely in fact if it weren’t for their assistance I would have had to close down for sure. But they kind of caused it too. So they needed to do something. To correct things.
Me : Well their policies to protect public health hit you like a wrecking ball for sure. But you’re still hanging and that’s all that matters isn’t it? Finally is there anything to add before we wrap it up?
Ahh I don’t know well…
Me: Do you have any new flavors ?
Ahh well we have the roasted garlic ice cream which is pretty wild.
Me: Ahh yes that’s for sure one reason that your place is different. I don’t think we would find that at the Baskin Robbins in town and by the way, speaking as a more ‘traditional’ ice cream consumer, I think your vanilla and chocolate flavors are scrumptious. I’ve had them both. However just knowing there is a choice for me to get out of my comfort zone adds to the experience and therefore we like small businesses …more variety and as one great philosopher once said: variety is the spice of life. I hope Wings Ice Cream and Shaved Ice can indeed do what wings do best and keep flying high in downtown Honolulu’s Chinatown district. I think we are all better for it.