July 30, 2022

A Barefoot Boy From Hilo

Manages the California Flower Market

(Part of the Mas Hongo Interview Series)

Interviewed by Leonard Chan (L) and Susan Tanioka (S)

Additional participant Florence Hongo (F)

With transcriptions by Mina Harada Eimon

Edited by Leonard Chan

This is a continuation of the Mas Hongo interview series.

When we last left off (see June’s newsletter), Mas’ flower growing and selling experience in Hawaii was coming to an end. Part of the last interview also contained his ventures on selling to the mainland flower markets.

We now pickup with his experience as the manager of the flower market in San Francisco.

L: You had your own business at the market, and then after a while...they recruited you to...manage the …(Flower Market)

M: I was managing the Sunnyside Nursery store before that.

Eiichi Yoshida of Sunnyside Nursery from Hayward was gonna open up an outlet in San Francisco’s flower market. So I asked, and I was hired to manage that store.

S: Eiji?

M: Eiichi Yoshida. E-I-I-C-H-I. Yoshida.

F: Before that you had a table at the Flower Market?

M: Yeah.

F: Okay, that’s what it is.

Before he became the manager of the Flower Market, he was working for Yoshida. Who was a BIG time nursery guy – sold flowers and plants.

Before that, before he went to work for Yoshida, he had a table at the market.

But none of these things happened together. When he terminated his table at the market, he went to work for Yoshida…

M: And after about 2 years, the manager of the Flower Market was going to retire. And when I realized that they have already had the first round of…

L: Selection?

M: Selection.

L: What made you want to do it?

M: Well, there’s another position. Run the market! That’s a top job!

L: Did you have some grand ideas as to what you wanted to do with the market once you got into…?

M: No, until you get there, you don’t know what kind of problems they had…

I didn’t know what it entail, what kind of problems was in the market, because I was not privy to those things.

S: Okay, so after they had the first round of their selection, you weren’t in that group?

M: I was not in that group.

L: You got your name on the list?

M: I got a special preliminary... interview to be selected to be among the others…

They’re all friends, see. Because all my connection, because of John Enomoto, they introduced me to them… the kotonks, they were not very friendly with guys from Hawaii, but I got in with them, because of my friend John Enomoto… the Enomoto family were rose growers, and they had an impact on the market, you know. And so, because of the connection, people knew where I came from, and who was backing me up. Therefore, they knew who I knew…

L: For the record, you wanna explain the term?

M: Kotonk? Kotonk is a mainland Japanese.

S: So you were networking before networking became popular.

M: Yeah, because… I was in business all up and down the Pacific Coast: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, Chicago, New York, and Grand Rapids.

L: Did you have any regrets once you got the job? Once you got the position did you understand the scope of what you were doing right away? And was there any difficulty?

M: No, I don’t know what the problems were, looking from outside. I had no idea.

Once I got in there, then I knew they had some problems. Only then, when you start running the organization, like for example, there was adjoining property, 20,000 square feet, the previous manager didn’t want to handle that. So the project was turned down. And then it came back again. And I said, okay, I will take on this task 20,000 square feet. It cost one and a half million dollars to buy it, but it cost another million and a half to renovate it.

L: It wasn’t in use at the time?

M: It was used. It was used…they used to rent cars out. They used to rent for year, you know.

L: Oh, so it wasn’t used for the flower market.

M: Before then, the whole place was used as a warehouse to house beer…

It’s hard to explain but because of different times, there different things that had happened. People were not buying cars. They were renting the cars on a yearly basis. So they leased these cars to those people. And they house the cars in that building. And before that, it was a place where they house beer. They use to have beer in kegs. Metal kegs. They used to store beer. And so there was a platform that took up about three quarters of that building. Trucks would back up. And they would load up the trucks. They would go out.

L: So what type of renovation did the building need, for the flower market purposes?

M: Oh, it cost about a million...close to 2 million dollars, it cost.

L: What did they do to the building to make it usable?

M: We had to take out all of that cement platform, bring it down to street level, have to fix all the roof, and at the end of the cement platform, there was a bathroom on that upper floor. So we had to cut the cement but in the process, the city said, we have to treat it like a bearing wall. So we had to…

S: Treat it at a load bearing wall?

M: So we had to put in rebar steels, and concrete like it is a bearing wall. We also had a problem…

L: Could you describe the interior in terms of...I’m not really familiar with the flower market. From my understanding, there’s like little stalls, or…

M: Well you divide up…You have to break up how big a space you want.

L: So each seller would have a designated amount of space, and they have their flowers sold in that space?

M: It’s not little, you know, it’s like 10 feet, 20 feet, 30 feet, 40 feet...so whatever space you need.

L: Did they have walls or anything separating the...it’s just open area?

M: Just open area. So you have to close off by having a chain link fence.

S: The first time I went in there, I thought I went up steps. Was that the old…? I thought it was up a ways, and it was just a big open place where people just kind of had their flowers here, and the flowers there.

M: No steps.

S: It wasn’t like that? Because now you drive in, and they’re shops like that.

M: There was no steps because when you brought in products, overseas or locally, they all come by trucks and cars. So if they off load...so...in fact, we thought sometimes they come...like, for example, stuff that used to come in from Florida, they come in from Guatemala or something like that—carnations that came from South America—and they used to truck it in.

L: Did they have a loading dock area, or would they just drive into the building and drop off at the stall?

M: They used to, park on the street and off load by hand.

L: On pallets and stuff?

M: We have pallet, they bring a high lift to pick it up.

We were thinking of putting in a loading dock, but it never happened, because when you try to put in a loading dock after the market is already in operation, it’s hard because you have to have a dedicated area, and you have to build a loading dock and an off loading dock, and they’re going to take away space. It’s very difficult. So we let that thing go…

So, we have to take care, first things first. And finally, the adjoining property became available again... It costs, I don’t know, one and a half, 1.8 million dollars. But it cost another million-and-a-half, million-and-eight to renovate the whole thing. So now the problem comes, how are we going to finance it? So that’s another story!

So the attorney and I were classmates. So, I used to go see him, and finally get everything out of the way, he and I would sit down and talk, and pick each other’s brains to see how we can best accomplish our goals. So we came up with the idea of financing. How are we going to do this? And let me tell you, when two guys it’s easier. Three guys, four guys, five guys, you get ten people with ten different opinions.

So we came up with the idea of financing. We’ll sell stocks in the company, we give them… at that point the prevailing interest rate was say 6 percent, we’ll give 10 percent. We tried to lure these people in. We tried to give them another 4-5 percent higher interest.

L: So is it private stock, or publicly sold?

M: No, no, no, it’s all, you know, it’s closed. The stocks owned by the growers. And so there are only growers.

L: So you got everyone to buy in?

M: So they bought some stuff, but you can’t… three million dollars? Who the h___ is going to buy three million dollars worth of stocks?

So we have to break it up in different ways. So Steve and I, sit down, and figure out what to do. And two guys, it’s much easier than 3 guys, 4 guys, 5 guys...and because we had a long standing appreciation of each other from school, we can talk without any recrimination.

S: So this is Steve…?

M: Nakashima.

S: Nakashima.

M: So we sold stocks, sold some high yielding notes, and borrowed some money from the bank. And we did this, usually two of us, because easier to come up with a solid plan.

L: Prior to the expansion, how many people were there at the flower market? Sellers? Do you have a rough idea? When you expanded it, did it get more people in the market?

M: Maybe a dozen more.

L: Dozen more seller. How many were there prior to that?

M: We started out… maybe about 15 to 20.

M: So this was a big leap for us…

L: Now, your customers are just regular flower stores, right?

M: Yeah.

L: So did you have an idea that there was a need for the expansion? Was there lots of flower stores coming and…?

M: There was a need.

L: Could you predict... could you sense that there were a lot more flower stores opening up, or…?

M: No, I have to go in and look for…

L: So you guys actually helped in creating more flower stores?

M: No, no, no, no...I have to get the space in order to get…

L: It’s kind of chicken and egg, though, right?

M: So once we got the space, then I went out to Morgan Hill, all the way to Salinas to get the growers out there. And they came in, and rented a stall. So I had to…

L: How do you get the...how do you get more customers, more people buying the flowers?

M: Well you gotta get the...somehow you get the guys, the vendors in. Naturally, the customers come. But they have to have space, new space. And I wanted more vendors, more competition, more products, and I thought it was a time that expansion was needed.

L: Oh, did we establish a date, for when this was all happening?

M: Gee, I don’t know when it was. Flower Market book? (Mas is referring to his book on the Flower Market called “Living with Flowers: The California Flower Market History”)

L: Okay, we’ll look it up.

M: But you see, to me, to take on an expansion part of it, to me it was a challenge. And if I can’t do it with my background, nobody else can. That’s the way I figured.

And I...in a way… always… big challenge… this to open up the market, and make the market. First, because when you are a small market, you’re very unstable. Therefore my concept was, the bigger the market, get all parts coming into the market, more variety of things coming to the market, stabilizes the market. And so my job was to create a physical market so all these things can happen in the market.

And let me give you an example. The Japanese market never talked to the Italian market…

Never talked to Italian market for joining the markets. So every market morning, I used to go in and see the president of the San Francisco Flower Market, the market owned by Italians. So I used to go and talk to the Italian market manager. Did I give you the guy’s name? What was the name?

S: I don’t know. You didn’t give it to me.

M: Armanino.

S: Armanino?

M: Yeah, Armanino. I used to stop by and talk to him. With no particular subject. I would ask him about his family, children, his grandchildren. And then I tell him about my family, trying to develop one on one, personal…

S: Personal relationship.

M: Relationship. And I even invited…

S: So you were just neighborly.

M: I even invited the management of the Italian market to my home, for Christmas party.

I tried not to only on an official business sense, but in a personal sense. I wanted to build up a relationship stronger than just business basis… I wanted to build up a strong relationship, so again personal and business and everything was just bonded.

S: Eventually you joined?

M: Yeah, eventually we...for example, we had two badge systems, one Italian, one California Flower Market, for example. So I talked to them into have one badge system. You gotta slowly do these things, you know, one by one.

S: And how about, how it would help them if there was just one badge. They could go back and forth.

M: You need personnel in order to do that.

S: Oh yeah.

M: And it was just duplicity, that’s all there was. But that goes to show you how fractured the relationship was. Until this guy from Hawaii came, and knock their heads together.

What I always had, I always can see the end result they want to get, and how am I going to achieve that. And so...I started to work on it, to achieve the final achievement that I wanted.

S: When did the two markets join? Was it after you bought the new property?

M: It was after that.

What happened was that… the charter under which San Francisco Italian market was formed was not in perpetuity… They had an ending date. And they needed to be resolved after a period of time. The mentality of the thing is, they’re jealous of each other, see, the Italians. And so, prior to that, the termination of the agreement. They incorporated because they had a time period and after that they had to be dissolved.

S: The Italians had a time period?

M: Yeah.

S: So they incorporated. The Italians, by themselves?

M: Yeah... they incorporated, because it was going to end…

So… I go and talk to Mr. Armanino... By doing this, I felt he would have trust in me and the Japanese market. So I had an ulterior motive. Usually I do things to achieve certain things…

You need to stay one step ahead, as they say. But in business, you have to see 10 steps ahead of the other guy… So I always use all my business senses, the schooling that I had, and try to put two and two together, and try to resolve whatever problems came up. And every time it’s a different problem. And most of the time, it’s people problem.

S: Okay, so you went from the two badge system to the one badge system. And then...but when did you get together and join?

M: Finally the Italian people found out they did not have a corporation. There was a time limit in which this partnership was to end. So they form a corporation, then slowly the whole market evolved in which the growers and mover of the San Francisco Flower Market were getting older, and there were only a few sons and daughters to take over the business.

S: When you talk about the San Francisco Flower Market, you’re talking about the Italians?

M: Yeah, Italians, yeah.

S: What was the Japanese side called?

M: California Flower Market. Otherwise called San Francisco Flower Growers.

L: How did that work exactly? Your customers were buying from both markets?

M: Both markets, but you know it was just… paperwork… One was California Flower. One was San Francisco. But people came and they didn’t ask… They just came to the Flower Market.

L: Does it have a historical basis, where like, early on, there was separation because of racism, where, you know, people didn’t want to deal with the Japanese, or?

M: No, they had...what they had was Chinese and Japanese. Because they couldn't speak the language! No other reason! How can a Japanese speak with a Chinese?

L: So that’s the historical basis.

M: Yeah. So they had a Chinese market and a Japanese market in the beginning.

L: Italians were kind of the same way where they spoke…

M: The Italians? Yeah. And the Chinese had their own market in the back. And the Italians had their own market.

L: What became of the Chinese market?

M: They had Chinese market. They had it in the back.

L: Did it just kind of integrate over time with the Japanese market?

M: Well you see, what happened was, the Chinese growers, the kids never took over. So they got old and they died out. And they had that market there. Their market was sold to the California Flower Market.