A Maui family is hoping Hello Kitty can buck the recession hitting the island.
And so far, the cute white cat and her friends have not let them down.
Kahului residents Troy and Jean Yokoyama, along with Jean's brother, Dan Takamura, and fiance Monica Geng, of Wailuku, opened up a Sanrio franchise store at the Queen Ka'ahumanu Center on June 27.
And despite the bad economy, the family said without divulging numbers that the first month of business has "exceeded" their expectations.
"We're lucky," Troy Yokoyama said Sunday at the store.
He reports business has been steady at the store near the mall's centerstage.
"We haven't really advertised. People just walk by," added Yokoyama, who with Jean, also owns another small business in Pukalani.
For those in the dark about the store and its cast of characters, Sanrio, according to its Web site, is a worldwide designer and distributor of character-branded stationary, school supplies, gifts and accessories and perhaps is best known for its Hello Kitty character. She has many popular friends including, Pochacco, a puppy, and Keroppi, a big-eyed green frog.
The family knows that businesses are contracting instead of expanding now but followed through with opening the store anyway.
"Opportunity was there," said Jean Yokoyama.
She said Sanrio was looking to have a store on Maui, and there was finally a right spot at Kaahumanu.
It took about two years to open the store, Jean Yokoyama said.
"We are trying to stimulate the economy," she added.
The store has 19 workers, many of whom are college-aged and are in their first jobs. The owners said there were at least 100 interested applicants for those jobs.
Troy and Jean Yokoyama also employ six others at their other small business. Omochaya (toy store) at Pukalani Terrace Center will be 4 years old in October. The store also sells a smaller selection Sanrio goods, anime (Japanese animation) items, Bakugan toys and happi coats. On Saturdays there are fresh baked goods such as mochi, manju, cookies and azuki bean pie, all which sell out fast.
Sanrio goods are sold elsewhere on the island, although their arrangement with the distributor does give Sanrio at Queen Ka'ahumanu Center exclusive Maui rights to some items.
At the Ka'ahumanu Center store, Sanrio goods (no baked goods) dominate the shelves, and there is a large variety. There are Sanrio banana-scented highlighters, Hello Kitty toilet seat covers, car air fresheners and Keroppi kiwi fruit flavored bubble gum. These items are in addition to the "old school" stationery Sanrio items Maui children used to pick up at the old Shirokiya Japanese goods store at Ka'ahumanu Center. These familiar items include pencil cases, Little Twin Stars pens, along with a plethora of other character themed pencils, pens and scented erasers.
There are also Snoopy items.
The store isn't patronized only by little and teenage girls; there are adults and males who are frequent customers.
Troy Yokoyama recalls that he once told a woman at his store, "Your daughter will love this."
The lady in her mid 30s to early 40s replied, "This is not for my daughter. It's for me," he recalled.
Takamura said many customers are collectors wanting to get the latest and hard to find Sanrio items that may not be replenished once the main warehouse runs out.
"Once it's on the shelf, you should buy it," Takamura said.
Geng, who remembers having Hello Kitty pencils and erasers when she was young, said the store is a fun place to work, and it's hard for her not to spend her money there.
On Sunday, she sported a Hello Kitty crystalized pendant and Hello Kitty earrings.
Both couples are hard workers because everyone, except for Jean, has other jobs.
Jean is the only owner working full time at the store. She used to work as a clerk for Council Services for the county, but left three years ago when it was becoming too hard to manage a full-time job and the Omochaya business. She now maintains daily contact with the two stores.
Troy Yokoyama is a county construction inspector and also works for Hawaiian Airlines Contract Services. He works at Sanrio on Sundays.
Takamura also holds down two other jobs, one with the county Environmental Management Department and the other with a financial company. Geng also works as an assistant to the fiscal officer at Maui Economic Opportunity. The couple also work nights and weekends at Sanrio.
Takamura said it was always his dream to own a business at Ka'ahumanu Center.
He said the store makes people happy. He hopes its opening will give people a lift during these hard times and "give people hope."
A grand opening is scheduled for Aug. 22