A FOND FAREWELL
Franz "Shiro" Matsuo took a one-time humble snack and turned it into a hearty meal. Photo by Randy T. Fujimori
Shiro Matsuo revolutionized saimin
By Simplicio Paragas
He was funny. He was smart. And when I first met Franz “Shiro” Matsuo in 1999, he said I was ugly. He told me years later that he was just kidding, but then hurled another insult at me by telling me I was getting fat. With news of Matsuo’s passing at the age of 93 on May 3, I was reminded how colorful “Mistah Saimin” was in every possible way, from his quirky “Dear Hearts” poetry and fortune-cookie-like truisms to his feathered hats and loud flamboyant aloha shirts.
Growing up in the Aala Park vicinity once known as “Hell’s Half-Acre,” Matsuo came from humble beginnings and was always proud of that fact, often telling me that if a “little poor boy can make it from Aala Park, then anyone can.” A motivational speaker in his own right, Matsuo always encouraged people to chase their dreams and when I lost my job in 2010, he lightheartedly offered me a dishwasher position at one of his restaurants and jokingly added that it was a better position than the first job he held as a “latrine orderly” in the U.S. Army during World War II.
At 42 years old, Matsuo was in an enviable position and on track to retire comfortably. He had a secure job as a culinary instructor at Kapiolani Community College. He was married to Jean Kamishima, the love of his life. And he was debt free. But all this changed almost over night when the then-owners of the Aiea Bowling Alley Coffee Shop approached Matsuo and offered to sell him their restaurant.
His late wife Jean and friends discouraged him from pursuing the idea but Matsuo was fiercely relentless, even knowing that he was unable to secure a loan from any bank. So with $85 to his name, he took over the 12-seat diner under the condition that he assumed the former owners’ $50,000 debt.
Undaunted and determined to bring the new Shiro’s Hula Hula Drive In into the black, Matsuo first spoke to all purveyors who agreed to keep supplying him with goods as he got on his feet. It was the biggest challenge of his life and it was one he couldn’t pass up. At first, the restaurant saw modest earnings, grossing $300 a day during breakfast, lunch and dinner. Matsuo soon realized he could stay afloat with this figure, but just barely.
Slowly, though, he started to see improvements, with sales inching up $25 one day, $40 the next and $50 the following day. Three months later, Matsuo took tally and saw a 300 percent spike in growth, and now earning $1,200 a day. The self-proclaimed “poor boy from Aala Park” was on his way to make a name for himself, all the while redefining saimin.
Credited with glorifying what was deemed by most back then as simply a snack, Matsuo took the simple bowl of saimin and turned it into an all-in-one meal, giving rise to a new utensil called the spork — half spoon/half fork.
One of his proudest moments was when then-Gov. Linda Lingle appointed him as “Statesman of Goodwill of Hawaii.” It was a crowning achievement for Matsuo, who later attempted to get on CNN’s “Larry King Live” so he could share the island spirit of aloha.
“My parents signed a contract to work the plantation,” Matsuo once told me during an interview. “We — and all the issei (first generation Japanese) — were very poor and shattered about the American dream. We lived in a shack, living conditions were horrible and the food was bad.” Except for the saimin, which he experienced as comfort and soothed his soul, and he would never forget those unsavory days as he aged.
“He started all this and they were all his ideas,” says daughter Linda Matsuo of the three restaurants and noodle factory. “He worked so hard for so many years. And I know he wanted to go out with a bang.”
Even at 91 years old, the affable “Mistah Saimin” frequently stopped by the Waimalu restaurant, talking story with guests, posing for photos and flirting with women. “My customers are my biggest reward,” Matsuo once said. “They’re my friends; they’re the ones who’ve supported me all this time.”
During my last conversation with him in a booth at his iconic Aiea restaurant, he told me he was proud of me, then followed up with a zinger, saying I was getting old and graying. I took it as an improvement from being ugly and fat.
I’ll miss you Shiro. A hui hou!