Light, crisp, airy and just the perfect balance of sweet and salty. They can be eaten on their own or used as a topping or garnish. Island residents have memorized their flavor and texture like the grooves of their own tongue. Visitors hoard them to take home as souvenirs. But what most do not know is how the prized One-Ton Chips came to be in a family-run noodle factory in the little old town of Papaikou.
“She was always trying new things,” Blane Maebo said of his grandmother Koto Maebo, who created the One-Ton Chips in 1953 using her husband’s hand-cranked machine that cut dough into noodles. Although her handmade selections of saimin, chow fun and udon were already becoming popular, Koto was constantly in an experimental mood. “She tried shrimp-flavored wonton chips, shrimp chips, taro chips. We even tried li hing mui and a lot of other different flavors but none of them took off at that time,” said Blane, who is now president of the famed Maebo Noodle Factory in Hilo.
It was the early 1950s when Blane’s grandfather took bags of the freshly cooked wonton noodle chips and sold them from his pushcart alongside fruits and vegetables to neighbors and random passersby. “This was before my time,” Blane said. “They used to come in a clear bag about the same size they are now and they were only sold in a handful of stores.”
Now known for their red-and-blue packaging with an Atlas-like body builder standing guard, One-Ton Chips have become a local staple. “They’re everywhere,” Blane said. “In the beginning it was nice to see the chips at stores. It was a sense of satisfaction.” Today, it is a rare occasion that the chips aren’t found on the shelves of major grocery stores like Safeway, Longs Drugs, Sack N Save, Foodland, and even at local markets like Mini Mart and Wiki Wiki Mart. The snacks are perfect for tailgate parties and can also be found at almost every gas station with a convenience store.
The Kawamoto Store, an old-time okazuya in Hilo, has been a loyal vendor for over five years. “They sell really good,” said owner Celeste Nathaniel, who finds herself restocking almost twice a week. “A lot of locals and visitors come in and see [the bags] and take some with them when they go to the beach or to have with their sushi.”
Aside from just a snack, Nathaniel found other uses for the addictive fried chips. “My sister uses them for salads,” she said. “Instead of croutons or other chow mein noodles, the chips give the Chinese chicken salad a different flavor.”
As a child, Blane enjoyed the chips freshly cooked. “We used to wait for them to come out of the fryer,” he recalls. “They were the best when they were hot.” He remembers hanging around his grandparents when they were still running the business out of a kitchen behind the garage of their small home. “When I was young, I never really thought about how popular they were getting,” Blane said. “All we did was eat the chips and play.”
The 15,000-square-foot factory in Hilo is five times bigger than its humble beginnings. A daily production of 30 to 40 batches yields approximately a couple hundred bags of chips. The operation is run by 16 people comprised of family, friends and long-time workers who have become like ohana, each with an assigned duty.
“We have the ones who make the dough, which is always only family, then those who cook the dough, pack the dough and then we have our drivers,” Blane explains. When asked about the ingredients, Blane pauses. “It’s a secret recipe,” he said. “My grandma taught my dad and my dad taught me. And one day I’ll pass it down to my son.”
Unlike just any family recipe that has been kept “secret” for several generations, this one has made it into most postwar Hawai‘i homes and beyond. As the third generation to adopt the Maebo Noodle Factory, Blane had the torch in his cards all along.
“I actually never really thought about it back then, you know. It was just a way of life for me,” Blane said. “But now, I cannot think of anything else I’d rather be doing.”