Shop owner embraces customers with Aloha

Article by Michael Tsai - It’s a ghost-pepper hot afternoon and the line at Uncle Clay’s House of Pure Aloha is tacking out the door and down the exposed walkway outside.

Inside, a mix of local shave ice connoisseurs and Yelp-directed visitors are waiting patiently to order from a menu of frozen confections. Outside, Uncle Clay Chang is exchanging hugs with a group of visitors from Michigan.

That’s part of the deal here. If you’re a longtime regular, occasional drop-in or first-time visitor — if Chang knows you, thinks he knows you or, as is often the case, wants to get to know you — you’re getting a hug.

“Miracles happen when you live pure aloha,” Chang says. “That’s pure, unconditional love. Hawaii is one of the last bastions of this kind of love and it’s only right that we share it with one another.”

His sentiments are not wafting sentimentality or visitor bureau come-on, but hard-earned insight.

As a child, he and his four siblings frequented the old Doe Fang crack seed store in Aina Haina. Walking the aisles eye level with oversized jars of preserved goodies, he dreamed of one day owning the store.

Chang graduated from Kalani High School and earned a degree in business administration at the University of Hawaii. After a stint in the Army, he worked in life insurance and real estate. But he never stopped visiting Doe Fang.

The owners eventually approached Chang about taking over the store. A single parent to two children, Chang made what felt like the responsible decision and declined. When he was approached again a couple of years later, he was reminded of what he had al- ways preached to his children: Follow your heart.

“The best sermons are taught by example,” Chang says. “So I went for it. People thought I was pupule!”

Chang worked seven days a week for years, often with his kids at his side. But life as a small-business man was tough and when the recession of 2008 hit, he found himself at a crossroads.

“The only way I could keep going was to give up my last asset — my home in Hawaii Kai,” Chang said. “I had a responsibility to keep the dream alive but I was ready to go down.”

Enter nephew Bronson Chang, a graduate of the University of Southern California and Cornell University. Together, they transformed the failing crack seed store into a shave ice shop that features artisanal syrups made from locally sourced ingredients.

The shop prospered thanks to word of mouth, a high social media profile and, of course, hugs.

“I humbly feel that this is a place of genuine aloha,” Chang says. “Everyone who walks in becomes a valuable part of our ohana. To me, this is the happiest place in the world.”

Paul Garner