Denjiro Ota (1873-1936), the founder of Lihue’s Tip Top Cafe &Bakery (now Tip Top Motel, Cafe &Bakery), was born in Japan and went to work for Lihue Plantation at Hanamaulu following his arrival on Kauai about 1896.
When his plantation contract was fulfilled, and with only one asset, a little cook book written in Japanese, he started out in business on his own as a peddler and was later employed by the old Lihue Store as a cook and also became a cook for sugar planter Albert Wilcox.
He also established a bakery in Kapaia before opening a coffee shop in Lihue at the urging of and with the financial backing of the Lihue Store manager — the first public eatery in Lihue.
In 1916, he moved his coffee shop into the Tip Top Building and named it the Tip Top Cafe &Bakery.
The Tip Top Building, built in 1915, was a Kauai landmark for 50 years, until it was demolished in June 1965 to make way for the Lihue Civic Center.
In those early days, Ota served breakfast at 4 a.m., when the Lihue Plantation whistle blew, and catered mostly to plantation lunas and traveling salesmen who arrived before dawn on inter-island steamers at Nawiliwili.
Before long Ota was baking bread and delivering it islandwide.
His son, Mitchell Ota, took over the business in 1925 and introduced Top Top’s famous pancakes and the first macadamia nut cookies made in Hawaii.
After the Tip Top Building was torn down, Mitchell moved the business into a new Tip Top Building as a restaurant, bakery, 14-room motel, and bar at its present location on Akahi Street.
When Mitchell Ota passed away in 1989, his grandson, Jonathan Ota, took control of the family business.
My wife, Ginger Beralas Soboleski, fondly recalls walking by the old Tip Top Building during the 1950s as a little girl while on her way to Lihue School in Pua Loke from her house in Lihue Camp A and smelling the warm, satisfying aroma of freshly baked bread.