Yes, there are bodegas in Hawaii. They are not commonly referred as such here. “Bodega” is a Spanish word, only slowly and recently entering Hawaii vernacular. I say that because of a recent debate I had with a visiting stranger from a major American metropolis who insisted that so-called bodegas can only be found in so-called big cities. I called “nonsense!” and explained that the actual meaning of “bodega”, according to Merriam-Webster, is 1) a storehouse for maturing wine; 2) a wine shop; and 3) a small grocery store in an urban area.
We have all three of those types of businesses in Hawaii, so I bought the visiting Middle-American visitor a snort of decent Spanish port and gloated over my rhetorical and semantic victory by telling him about two bodegas that have been an important part of my life for decades. They are tourism-adjacent but are by no means beholden to the capricious and arbitrary comings and goings of fleeting nonresidents. That’s what ABC Stores and 7-11s in tourist hotspots are for.
Bodegas in Hawaii – part of the community
On the edges of those hotspots and far beyond are residential neighborhoods full of people who need gas for their vehicles, a Spam musubi between jobs, paper towels, pet food, or a twelve-pack of beer and a bag of ice or rice or both. Life’s incidental but persistent necessities, urban or not. It’s easy to deem these businesses “liquor stores”, and it’s not inaccurate. But they are much more important and far less insidious than that distinction implies.
The lady who runs the Shell station around the corner from my apartment is a couple of short years older than me and she shares my loathsome obsession with golf. I’m certain she plays better than me. Years ago, she threatened to ban me from her store because I called her “Auntie”.
“I’m not your auntie!” she protested. “We da same age! You call me auntie again, I no let you come back in!” It was a delightful and welcome rebuke.
“Okay, okay,” I pleaded. “Sistah, den.”
The people behind the counters
During the long months of Covid lockdowns and restrictions in 2020-2021, Sistah was one of the only humans I’m not married to whom I saw on a near-daily basis. I truly believe she helped my wife and I through the pandemic in a meaningful way. She knows my hours, my habits, my choice of drink, and my preferred snacks and brand of smokes. She knows that I’m a writer and a musician and asks now and then how those pursuits are going. I’m always honest about it. I trust her.
I expect she helped a lot of people in my Honolulu neighborhood through the pandemic in much the same way. During that time, she’d say, “Take some kimchee seaweed for your wife.” She steadfastly refuses the home-baked cookies and confections my wife offers. “I don’t play golf enough. I put on weight.”
My other bodega is near the heart of Downtown Honolulu, a block away from the pub that I’ve been performing and working “out-of-office” in for 20 years. The lady who runs it is known and is adored by everyone I know and associate with. She knows that I drink bourbon, that I am downtown most days for work and leisure, and that I play guitar and sing and write for my living. She knows my sisters by name and waves hello at my wife waiting outside as we make our way into the adjacent public parking lot. She offers a me Christmas present every year. In 2023, it was a carefully wrapped candy selection.
“I know you don’t eat sweets,” she said, smiling brightly and patting my hand. “Give it to your wife.” Her elderly white-haired poodle-terrier mix howled approval and toddled from under the counter for the scratches I’m always happy to provide.
Both ladies have good-natured husbands, who are around when the ladies aren’t. Those husbands don’t know nearly as much about me as their wives do, and they certainly don’t care about my golf game or how many punters crammed into my local for the gig the night before. My wife refers to those ladies as my “girlfriends” affectionately and she has her own friendly relationship with them.
I can’t really say how much those ladies at the bodegas actually care, if I’m honest. But it’s at least enough to know some little things about me that only people in my inner circle of friends and family can know.
For the most part, bodegas in Hawaii don’t have websites or social media accounts. Or shopping carts. You can find them via preferred internet search engines, sure, but most visitors are likely to head for the florescent blue beacon of the nearest ABC Store or heed the corporate siren call of the 7-11. And that’s fine. They have Spam musubi, too. It just wasn’t made by the person you’re buying it from.
We are strong supporters of local businesses, and it doesn’t get more local than bodegas in Hawaii (or liquor stores or mini-marts or what have you). The notion of “corporate” doesn’t come into it. But the best batch of kimchee seaweed, Spam musubi, or the most perfect egg salad sandwich you’ve ever had just might.
Turn to our Hawaii Aloha Travel experts to find the best bodegas in Hawaii.