Hardworking Hawaii: Pandemic hurts long-time business Waiola Shave Ice during key summer months

Hardworking Hawaii

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The sound of grinding ice is music to Jerry Lee’s ears.

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“I feel that we are creating a memory, like a childhood memory,” Lee, the owner of Waiola Shave Ice, said.

Going to the famous Waiola Shave Ice store located on Waiola Street is a memory that many Hawaii residents have. However, the little store wasn’t always as popular as it is today.

“It was just a general grocery store. There was no shave ice back then,” Lee said. “So the shave ice window that you see now was added in afterwards,” he explained.

Waiola Store opened 80 years ago in 1940.

There have been a few owners over the years.

In 1986, Jerry Lee’s parents took it over and shave ice suddenly became his life.

“I didn’t study much to be honest because we started from seven o’clock to 10 o’clock at night,” Lee said about the long, hard hours he put in at his parents store.

Lee’s hard work paid off. He added flavors and shave ice began to take off in the 90s.

However, Lee credits its name for its success.

“The meaning of Waiola literally translates in Hawaiian to water life, or living water, or even spiritual water, so it has that magic,” Lee said.

It has this magical power, so people taste it, and they love it and they just keep coming back for it.”

Jerry Lee, Owner of Waiola Shave Ice

Over the years, Waiola Shave Ice became one of Hawaii’s most famous shave ice spots.

Locals and visitors from all over the world crave the sweet treat.

In 1999, Jerry Lee opened up a second location in Kapahulu. The expansion was his pride and joy. Despite its success, 2020 has been a rough year on the long-time shave ice store.

While the original location is getting by, Lee said that his Kapahulu location is hurting.

“At the end of the day, I look at the numbers and some days it just didn’t add up. It makes more sense just to close the shop,” he said about how COVID-19 impacted his business.

Lee said he hopes that more customers will come back fast, so he does not have to make any painful decisions.

“It’s something that you build out from your heart and soul, and just to give it up that easily … It’s … I think I’ll try to hold it as long as I can,” Lee said while tearing up about the thought of having to close his second location.

On top of the local stay-at-home orders, and lack of tourism, Waiola Shave Ice has had to deal with a third hurdle–the loss of business during its busiest season.

My only hope is to have a warm winter, and not to be so greedy … just so that I can pay my bills.

Jerry Lee, Owner of Waiola Shave Ice

Lee is clearly passionate about his business, but it’s because of his customers that he is so motivated to get through the pandemic.

“I have pictures … people showing me, the last days of terminal cancer and they are dying, and their last wishes are Waiola Shave Ice,” he said.

To survive, Waiola Shave Ice has had to cut hours, reduce staff and stop selling perishable items like spam musubi.

Jerry Lee said he hopes to survive and keep both locations open to be able to provide Hawaii with memories for decades to come.

“Those moments … kind of touch your heart that you are making something,” Lee said getting emotional. “It’s not just a product. You’re like, giving a life to something or extended life to somebody. Somebody always remember their moments of having the Waiola Shave Ice.”

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