Mark Taira assumed control of his father’s business in the 1980s and grew a small local bakery into a $2 billion fortune built on sweet rolls. Now with the third generation in place, he’s hungry for more acquisitions.
By Chloe Sorvino, Forbes Staff
The sweet smell of baking bread swirls sugar and butter notes in the air of the King’s Hawaiian factory in Torrance, California, a town of 140,000 just south of Los Angeles. Millions of rolls are sent out of these doors weekly. Mark Taira, the 67-year-old son of the bakery’s founder and its CEO since 1983, pauses the factory tour to take in the scent as he adjusts to the loud hum of conveyor belts, grinding gears and bread-kneading machines. Once acclimated, the Hawaii-born executive, wearing a blue tropical-print shirt underneath his white factory smock and a hard hat, rips into a fresh pack of rolls, releasing a puff of steam.
“I look at what’s inside of that bag. I don’t just look at it flowing down the conveyor,” Taira says, grinning as he takes bites. Fresh off the line is Taira’s favorite way to eat his family’s famous rolls, and there is plenty to choose from: Every hour, 13,000 pounds of King’s Hawaiian bread are baked at this plant, six days a week. In addition, King’s Hawaiian has a much larger operation in Georgia that serves the East Coast.
Those signature buns generate around 85% of the $900 million in annual revenue that Taira’s food empire brings in—the rest is from condiments and beverages—with well over 40% gross profit margins, according to Forbes’ estimates. (Taira claims the company operates with a relatively low debt-to-Ebitda ratio—as low as 1.5 times, which he claims is about half of most industry competitors’.) It’s an impressive haul for the food industry, where gross margins typically hover around 30%, especially considering the King’s Hawaiian recipe calls for 12 key ingredients—three times as many as other breads—some of which the company will source only from the original suppliers in the Aloha State.
A few competitors do even better. Publicly traded Grupo Bimbo—America’s biggest bread seller, with $22 billion in 2023 sales of Thomas’ English Muffins, Ballpark buns and Arnold’s sliced bread—posts higher margins (50% gross, 10% net) by using cheaper ingredients. But eking out a few extra cents isn’t a priority for Taira, who has no outside shareholders. That enables him to live by what he calls one of his father’s best pieces of advice: “Never be greedy.”
That wisdom has served him well. Through King’s Hawaiian, the Taira family has written a classic American success story. When Taira became CEO at 27 after his father, who was a baker, revenue was $3 million annually (or about $9.5 million in today’s money). Under Taira’s leadership, the brand has earned a huge cult following. Over the last two decades, King’s Hawaiian revenue has risen 15-fold, and the modest family business has evolved into an acquisition-hungry home for emerging brands.
Under the holding company Irresistible Food Group, which was formed in 2021, the Taira family now sells Hawaiian-farmed tea and the classic bun complement: pickles. They’ve also started a Hawaiian-inspired restaurant concept, all while remaining 100% family-owned. Forbes estimates Taira’s extended family—which includes his 93-year-old mother, Tsuneko, who sits on the board alongside his four siblings—is worth $2 billion. That’s a feat few family businesses can claim, even if it’s less than the $10 billion cutoff to make Forbes’ list of America’s Richest Families.
Today, King’s Hawaiian is the envy of many grocers, competitors and investors. The brand comes up “all the time in our meetings,” says Wayne Wu, general partner at VMG, a San Francisco–based venture and private equity shop with a large food portfolio, “as an iconic brand that we look at and say, ‘I hope we can find a brand to invest in like a King’s Hawaiian.’ ”
The famous 12-pack of rolls is the second-most-sold item across all American grocery stores during Thanksgiving and Christmas, the two biggest holiday spending periods of the year. The only product that sells more? A 12-pack of Coca-Cola cans. During Easter ham season, King’s Hawaiian rolls are America’s third-best seller, after Land O Lakes butter and Coke.
Taira wants to add more holidays to the kingdom. King’s Hawaiian is eyeing events like the Super Bowl—he wants “Slider Sunday” to be the new Taco Tuesday—as well as grilling holidays like the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Customers buy rolls all year: A decade ago, some 60% of King’s Hawaiian’s annual sales came from Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. Now that figure is just 40%.
“What they’ve built is the dream of every aspiring food brand,” Wu adds. “What’s different is the patience [with which] they’ve done it. Because they built it brick by brick, their foundation is stronger than anybody out there—the house has been built so strong that no one can tear it down.”
The story of King’s Hawaiian began on a sugar plantation on Hawaii’s Big Island decades before statehood in 1959. There, Robert Taira grew up the sixth of nine children born to immigrants from Okinawa, Japan, who came to work the sugarcane fields in 1906. After World War II, young Robert became a translator stationed in Japan. Noticing how happy people were when biting into baked goods, he decided to become a baker, enrolling in baking school once he was back in Hawaii. His father cashed out his life insurance policy—worth $350 (or $4,500 today)—to help launch his son’s store. With used equipment from military surplus, Robert’s Bakery opened in 1950 in Hilo, Hawaii.
The soft, round loaves he made—a fusion of local Hawaiian cuisine and sweet breads made by Portuguese immigrants in Hilo—quickly found an audience. Since Robert’s rolls didn’t get stale for a day or two, grocers stocked them. The bakery outgrew its space and in 1963 moved to King Street in Honolulu with a new name: King’s Bakery.
“Our playground was the warehouse where they had all the bags of flour and sugar,” Taira says. Once they were old enough, he and his cousins pitched in with “all the small things. Decorating cupcakes. Packaging the bread.”
The bake shop, also known for its chiffon cakes with tropical flavors like guava, passionfruit and lime, regularly had lines down the block. Shipping the 2,500 miles to the mainland grew into a steady business. King’s became the Honolulu Post Office’s top customer, shipping tens of thousands of loaves a year.
“He had vision but he got stuff done. He was just never afraid,” Taira recalls of his father. “That’s the story with many immigrant families—they’ve got nothing to lose.”
Aiming to lower transportation costs, Robert and his wife, Tsuneko, mortgaged the family home to build a bakery just outside Los Angeles. In 1977, the production facility opened at a cost of $3.7 million (about $18.7 million today). The only problem? The factory hadn’t signed any mainland customers.
Robert hit the pavement. He figured out that if he left one of his loaves with a buyer’s secretary and they ate it, they often asked for another. After two years of cold-calling buyers and dropping off samples, Robert’s bet on himself paid off. In 1979, Safeway became King’s first national account.
That constituted progress, but the brand didn’t really catch on until Robert and Mark made a fundamental change to their signature product—ditching full loaves for shareable rolls. They spent months cutting and rounding dough by hand before landing on pull-apart sweet rolls. Their signature 12-pack launched in 1983.
When Mark became CEO later that year, he soon decided to take another risk: Move out of Hawaii and close the Honolulu bake shop. He embarked on building a 140,000-square-foot plant in Torrance, six times larger than the original. Robert died in 2003 at 79, just before it opened, so he never got to see the culmination of that successful strategy. By 2005, sales had hit $50 million.
“[Mark] had a legacy to keep and the ambition to figure it out,” says Kenshiro Uki, president of Honolulu-based ramen maker Sun Noodle and mentee of the man he calls Uncle Mark. “It’s all about the family. That’s always been his guiding light.”
Hungry for more, Taira pushed the family business east to Georgia. With a $65 million loan, he built a state-of-the-art 120,000-square-foot factory outside Atlanta in 2011. At last, King’s Hawaiian could profitably deliver rolls—baked, then immediately frozen to sell them “fresh”—to Northeast markets like New York.
Even as King’s Hawaiian began spending money on TV and print ads—its marketing went from zero to tens of millions annually between 2011 and 2016—the business became more profitable, and the family paid down some of that Atlanta debt.
By 2016, revenue topped $320 million, up fivefold from a decade prior. Taira doubled down, hiring John Linehan, a strategic planning consultant who had worked with him since 2005, as King’s new president. Linehan shook things up, particularly in the sales department. Of the 45 sales staffers, just 12 remained two months later.
ROLLING IN DOUGH
A brief history of america’s best-selling baked goods and snacks.
With Linehan’s new team whipping up demand, King’s Hawaiian needed to make more buns. It doubled the size of the first Georgia plant in 2015 before building a second facility in 2016 and doubling that two years later. A third, currently under construction, was designed specifically for King’s Hawaiian’s next line: pretzel bites. Taira developed the snacks without a confirmed customer base.
“We’re going to figure it out,” he says, clad in a hard hat as cooling pretzel bites slide down ramps in the 140,000-square-foot facility. “If you’re making a mediocre product and you need to depend on marketing to sell it, that’s different. We’ve never been that way. We’re a product company. We’re not a marketing company.”
Georgia is also home to the Tairas’ latest project: Hello Hilo, a Hawaiian-inspired restaurant featuring bowls of Huli Huli chicken and Korean-style bulgogi alongside potato mac salad, spam musubi, chiffon cakes (based on Robert’s original recipes) and a menu of King’s Hawaiian sliders. The first location opened in Gainesville, a little town about 50 miles north of Atlanta, last July. Another opens later this year.
More restaurants could open sooner if the Tairas franchise the concept, but controlling quality is more important for now, says Taira’s daughter, Courtney, who runs the restaurant division.
“Before there was bread, we already were in the retail business,” adds Courtney, a 38-year-old culinary school graduate with an MBA from UCLA who has worked for her family’s businesses since she bagged cookies and packed donuts as a kid at the old-school diner in Torrance. “As the bread continued to grow, we still wanted to have a presence in the community, which is why we have maintained having these restaurants.”
“If you’re making a mediocre product and you need to depend on marketing to sell it, that’s different,” says King’s Hawaiian CEO Mark Taira. “We’re a product company. We’re not a marketing company.”
With the business now in its third generation, the Tairas say they will continue to rebuff outside investors and acquisition offers and that King’s Hawaiian will remain family-owned. “No one’s going to make a better product for a consumer than a family business, especially our family,” Taira says.
Rather than being acquired, Irresistible Foods Group is the one that has been doing the buying. Under Linehan, who is also the holding company’s president, in the last three years Irresistible has spent around $100 million combined to scoop up Boston-based Grillo’s Pickles (sales have doubled since the acquisition); Innovation Bakers, a supplier to Southern California’s 7-Eleven locations; and Hawaii-based Shaka Tea. Irresistible also invested in Honey Mama’s refrigerated cocoa truffle bars and mochi ice cream maker Mochidoki. So far, the company has identified 200 desirable brands and is in talks with about 20, according to Linehan.
“Dream big—it’s completely worthless without really good execution,” says Linehan, who doesn’t own any equity. He adds that Irresistible’s 2,500 employees are handsomely compensated, arguing that’s better than a stake in a company not interested in an exit.
Consider Shaka Tea, based in Hilo, the site of Robert’s first bakery. Shaka features the ingredient māmaki, a rare leaf with medicinal history among native Hawaiians, sourced from small-scale family farmers around the Big Island. The family won’t substitute māmaki with cheaper botanicals. “We’re doing things the hard way,” says Taira’s 36-year-old son Winston, who has an MBA and consulted at KPMG before returning to the family business in 2021.
All the new ventures haven’t been without failure. A line of barbecue sauces—launched in 2015 to accompany hamburger and hot dog buns introduced four years earlier—was scrapped in 2019.
But Taira believes Irresistible could soon top $1 billion in sales. To get there, the company needs to sell more rolls, pickles, teas and a fair amount of newer products. A third of American households now eat some version of Irresistible’s food—but there’s always room to grow. Not only in the United States, either—Costco’s 27 locations in Japan now sell King’s Hawaiian rolls. Its bread is also sold in Canada and 14 Central American, South American and Caribbean countries, as the Tairas eye Germany, the United Kingdom and more.
What the Tairas won’t do to boost profits is bake their Hawaiian rolls for anyone else, even though supermarkets ask all the time. One large chain even threatened to discontinue King’s Hawaiian entirely if the store couldn’t sell its own version. But Taira held firm and will continue to. The grocer eventually backed down.
“Of course,” Taira says with a grin, “they needed us.”