The ‘ohana-run Asato Family Shop has achieved cult status with sherbet inspired by the flavors of Hawai‘i childhood.
A sea of umbrellas wraps around the block. The sidewalk is slick with the morning’s rain. If the weather forecast is anything to go by, Honolulu is due for more downpours throughout the day.
Yet, the people in line for Asato Family Shop’s sherbet don’t seem to mind. If anything, they’ve come prepared. They’re wrapped up in windbreakers and ponchos, hunkered down in folding chairs. Some are swaddled in blankets, passing the time on their phones or small talking with strangers next to them.
They have been in line for hours, the earliest having arrived before sun-up. Drivers passing this crowd in downtown Honolulu crane their necks, trying to get a glimpse of what the special occasion could be. In Hawai‘i, lines like this usually only happen for Black Friday sales or grand openings of big-box stores. Today is neither. At Asato Family Shop, it’s just a regular Sunday.
In the two years since Neale Asato opened Asato Family Shop, its “local-kine sherbets,” as Asato calls them, have risen to cult status. Its Instagram account, which has more than 29,000 followers, has a highlight reel of customers showing off freezers packed with take-out containers from the shop.
Sale day, which is every Sunday, starts promptly at 9 a.m. when Asato swings the shop doors open. The shop exudes the same essence as nostalgic neighborhood stores, with a minimal storefront decorated in classic gold lettering and an interior crammed with knick-knacks like jars of preserved plum and shelves of dried and li-hing flavored sweets. It’s true to its name too. The shop is family-run, with Asato’s parents, siblings, cousins, and children all pitching in to make and sell the sherbet. One by one, customers roll up their coolers to be filled with pints of sherbet. Within the first hour, the shop is out of half the flavors. By noon, all flavors are sold out. They always sell out.
I get a lot of my inspiration from crack seed stores and li hing mui stuff, because that’s very unique to Hawai‘i.
Part of the appeal, Asato asserts, is the exclusivity.
“I grew up a sneakerhead,” he says. “I understand supply and demand, especially with limited-edition things.” Other than the signature flavors of strawberry, pineapple, and Green River (inspired by the lime-flavored soda of the same name) which are available every week, the shop releases exclusive flavors available for a limited quantity and limited time, usually only for a week or two. Months could pass before they’re released again.
In the past, flavors like pickled mango juice and Orange Bang have created a frenzy, with customers lining up for hours and packing coolers with multiples of each.
“We get so many people in line, especially when it’s a flavor’s last day,” Asato says. Eventually, he had to place a limit on how many pints of the limited edition flavors customers could buy to keep from selling out too quickly.
Often, Asato will tailor the month’s flavors to a theme. December offerings included more holiday-inspired treats, like spiced apple cider, peppermint bark cheesecake, and hot cocoa. This Sunday is the beginning of crack-seed month at the store, a homage to the candy and preserved-fruit stores popular throughout Hawai‘i.
The week’s line-up includes li hing float, a mix of vanilla ice cream and strawberry sherbet sprinkled with li hing mui powder. Other sherbets were flavored with lemon-peel gummy-bear candy; haw flakes, a Chinese candy made with hawthorn berries; and White Rabbit, a popular milk candy.
The flavors are fodder for nostalgia. It’s the foremost reason given by Asato’s more die-hard fans like Jaimee Harris and Travis Kim, who snag a haul of more than 60 pints. They line up at the store every Sunday at 6:30 a.m.
“We bought a small freezer just for Asato’s sherbets,” Harris says. “Our fridge started to run out of space.” Harris and Kim feel a special connection to the sherbets because the flavors are so specific to Hawai‘i residents. Asato agrees, saying that the flavors are like an inside joke for locals.
“It’s things that we grew up eating, stuff that only Hawai‘i people would know,” Asato says. However, he also doesn’t want it to feel too exclusive, so he includes more general flavors like matcha and cinnamon roll among the offerings.
When he first developed the shop’s business model, Asato knew he wanted to pay tribute to flavors particular to Hawai‘i.
“I get a lot of my inspiration from crack seed stores and li hing mui stuff, because that’s very unique to Hawai‘i,” he says. He cherishes memories of lining up for the manapua man, the Hawai‘i version of an ice cream truck, and visiting Tasaka Guri-Guri, the famous Kaua‘i frozen dessert shop. “I wanted to recreate that same kind of local shop, but for the new generation,” he says.
In December 2019, Asato Family Shop celebrated its one-year anniversary at its location downtown. “It’s been such a crazy year for me,” Asato says, reminiscing about how just two years ago, he was making sherbet from his home kitchen with a one-quart ice cream maker he bought from Amazon.
In those early days, his customers were friends and family, and Asato drove to their houses to drop off their orders. Within four months, he was delivering to more than 30 customers.
Today, he routinely sells more than 1,500 pints each week, with dozens of people standing in line every Sunday.
Recently, an Instagram video of rapper Snoop Dogg and comedian Trevor Noah praising Asato’s sherbets went viral.
“Honestly, I don’t know how it got so big,” Asato says. “I guess the flavors bring back memories of childhood, and just good times.”