Island Saloon Pilots In New England

Jo McGarry
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Wednesday - April 15, 2009
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(front, from left) Pat Sarabia and Maggie Li (back) Mel Pagaragan, George Price and Brent Kunimoto

Good food would be nothing without a good story. A cookie is simply something that goes well with milk, and a cracker no more than a carrier for cheese until the taste takes you back to your grandmother’s baking or the crunch of an animal cracker reminds you of when you were young.

At Diamond Bakery, they’ve been gathering stories about their crackers for almost 90 years.

“Everyone has a story about one of our products,” says the bakery’s president and CEO, Brent Kunimoto. “As soon as you mention a Saloon Pilot cracker or our soda crackers, people have a smile on their face and can’t wait to tell you something about their connection to our company or their favorite way to eat the crackers.”

The founders of Diamond Bakery began writing their own story in the early 1900s when, as Japanese immigrants, they dreamed of owning their own business.

“Our founders were a group of Japanese friends,” says Kunimoto. “One worked as a cook, two others worked in domestic service as a maid and a butler, and they would get together and talk about how they’d like to start their own business making ‘tasty treats’ for family and friends.”


The cook had some experience making cookies and crackers, and the ambitious group was guaranteed a loan by one of their employers, a Manoa resident, Mrs. McIntyre. In 1921, they began limited production and distribution of soda crackers.

“It’s not the kind of thing you’d do nowadays,” says Kunimoto during a tour of Diamond Bakery’s sweet-smelling factory. “The equipment alone would set you back millions of dollars.”

Searching for recipes that would lay the foundation of a solid business, the founders learned to make “sea biscuits,” the large, round, hard biscuits stowed on ships during long voyages. Obtaining a recipe from seamen who ate the galley staple on their long journey from the East Coast to the Islands, the Diamond bakers began to produce Saloon Pilot crackers and a variety of other products that today number more than a hundred different varieties.

“The hardy cracker was always able to withstand humid conditions,” says Kunimoto, “so it was the perfect accompaniment to salt beef. It was a real treat on a long boat trip.”

The sea biscuits were a favorite of New Englanders, who considered them the essential accompaniment to clam chowder, and soon the crackers became as popular in Maine as they were in Manoa. But in 2007, East Coast residents were shocked when Nabisco halted production of their favorite crunchy snack.

A dark and cracker-less year passed, until word of the shortage reached Hawaii’s shores.

“A bit like a message in a bottle, word reached us of the saloon cracker shortage,” says Kunimoto. And, a bit like the ending to a really good story, Hawaii-made crackers are being shipped to 75 grocery stores in Maine as we speak.

As you can imagine, the delivery of the first saloon crackers in almost a decade, from the place where Maine seamen first shared their recipe almost 90 years ago, has created no end of excitement at Diamond Bakery.

“It was always our mission to spread heart-warming aloha through our products,” says Kunimoto, quoting the company’s mission statement. “In Hawaii, we do it through our work with the American Heart Association and the Hawaii Foodbank, and now, with the Saloon Pilot crackers returning to their ‘home,‘we’re on our way to spread heart-warming aloha to the world.”

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