LIHUE — On Dec. 6, Robert’s, located on Kress Street in Lihue, started its 70th year of business under the hands of Milton Ozaki, the second generation of the Ozaki family.
“This is a special number,” Milton said. “We’re going to do something special in 2016 to celebrate as Robert’s starts its 70th year of business.”
Robert’s first opened its doors as a men’s wear and shoe store in Hanapepe on Dec. 6, 1946, by Milton’s father, Robert Ozaki. Milton vaguely remembers the store, which was located in one of the smaller shops in Hanapepe Town.
“I was 1 year old,” Milton said. “The front part of the building was the store, and we, including my two sisters, all lived in a one-bedroom house. We were there until I was 5 years old. Hanapepe Heights opened, and we moved there.”
The shop was located where Robert spent a lot of time as a youngster.
“My dad and mom ran the clothing store in Hanapepe, and my uncle rented a space from my dad to do jewelry,” Milton said. “When I came home in 1972, my uncle retired from the jewelry business and my dad bought him out to start ‘Robert’s 14 Carat Room’ inside the Robert’s store.”
Milton said the jewelry room was luxurious.
“We had red carpet leading up to it, and it was luxurious inside,” Milton said. “Everyone was afraid to go into the room because everything was expensive.”
At that time, jewelry was just a small part of the business, and a decision was made to close the jewelry room.
“During the closeout sale, there were many customers who were asking about Hawaiian jewelry,” Milton said. “Because of that demand, we decided we would investigate Hawaiian jewelry. This was not part of the plan, but because so many customers asked about it, we thought we had better check it out.”
Milton said while on a trip to Honolulu, someone told him to check out Arakawa’s in Waipahu, which was doing well with Hawaiian jewelry.
The exploratory tour also gave him a tour of the Hawaiian jewelry manufacturer and its plant, where he noticed a “lot of little boxes representing the stores selling Hawaiian jewelry, and a big box representing Arakawa’s.”
That tour gave birth to the family’s jewelry business, which soon outgrew the clothing and shoe business.
“Overnight, jewelry became the biggest part of Robert’s,” Milton said. “From almost nothing to where we are today — where we buy gold and diamonds, sell Hawaiian jewelry, and do tuxedo rentals.”
On a subsequent tour to the Hawaiian jewelry manufacturer, Milton noticed the same little boxes, the big box representing Arakawa’s, and another box, not quite as big, labeled “Others.”
“This was where we were,” Milton said. “We were in the Hawaiian jewelry business. On another trip, we noticed that we had grown to have our own ‘Robert’s’ box.”
Milton admitted he had to learn the jewelry business.
“I didn’t know that much,” Milton said. “I treated jewelry like clothing. When we moved to the Kukui Grove Center, we were taking orders from three U-shaped cases, but had so many orders, the manufacturer had to change to keep up with the orders coming in. At this point, we earned our ‘Robert’s’ box in the manufacturer’s shipping warehouse.”
With the 12-year lease at Kukui Grove coming to an end, Milton said they opened the Kress Street store as a trial — to see how jewelry would do.
The trial turned into a permanent home when Milton opened the doors to the Kress Street shop in 1994. That was with the support of the Hawaiian jewelry manufacturer, who provided 36 pieces of koa showcases for the small shop.
“Gold prices were low at that time,” Milton said. “Jewelry sold at reasonable prices.”
As Robert’s enters its 70th year, Milton said he wants more time away from the store.
“We rented out the Hanapepe property so I wouldn’t have to work so hard,” Milton said. “But now, it increased the workload in Lihue. But it’s all good. I was always comfortable because my parents worked hard so their children wouldn’t have it hard. Financially, Robert’s has been good, and it’s also good that, as the owner, I get to sell on the floor — to hear what the customer wants.”
But Milton said he misses his golf game.
“We’re closing until Jan. 4,” he said. “Tomorrow, I’m going to golf — it’s been a long time — but I’m coming back in afterwards, you know, to clean up and do some things before the New Year’s.”
Dennis Fujimoto, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-0453 or email@example.com.