When Noelito Suga started working at the Sun Noodle factory in 1986, he was a boiler, meaning his job was to boil the noodles.
He was paid $3.35 an hour.
His next job was as a mixer, and he processed 1,000 pounds of flour a day.
He continued to work his way up the food chain, and now, nearly 30 years later, Suga is production manager, a key worker who has contributed to the company’s growth, its success and its expansion to the mainland with two additional factories in Los Angeles and New Jersey.
"I’m proud to work here," Suga said.
Of its three factories, Sun Noodle’s Honolulu plant on Colburn Street in Kalihi cranks out by far the largest quantity of noodles, some 50,000 servings per eight-hour shift, according to the company website. The Honolulu facility is mixing, boiling, cutting and rolling noodles of all shapes, sizes and textures, as well as gyoza and won ton wrappers, from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"I was working hard for that, with my boss and my co-workers. … (I’m) happy doing what I’m doing."
When Japanese-born Hidehito Uki established Sun Noodle’s parent company H&U Inc. in 1981, he was 19 years old.
Uki’s father had been in Hawaii and considered starting a noodle company, but the plan fell through.
A noodle-making machine ordered for the company-that-never-was remained at Honolulu’s docks, "and when my father told me about the opportunity … it was a once-in-a-lifetime event," Uki said. He left Japan, picked up the noodle machine and started working.
There were 20 noodle businesses in Honolulu at the time, Uki said. His was the newest and smallest, but through persistence, hard work and brainstorming over a drink or two with Suga and other crew members after work, the company is now one of the "13 or 14" surviving noodle companies in Hawaii and is among the top three in terms of market share, Uki said.
The company made between $20,000 and $30,000 in sales its first year, Uki said.
Sun Noodle has made its own ramen products, available in multiple flavors at retail markets locally and on the mainland, but its expansion took off through customization of noodle recipes for restaurants and the broader food service industry.
It has moved locations since those early days into larger digs.
In 2006 H&U acquired one of its long-lived predecessors, S&S Saimin, from Itoen (USA) Inc. Sun still makes S&S saimin noodles, which are different from ramen noodles, as just about anyone in Hawaii will affirm. Ramen noodles are chewy, while saimin noodles tend to be more "brittle," Uki said.
Saimin is Suga’s favorite type of noodle made at Sun, he said.
Asked about his favorite, Uki mentioned the Hokkaido-style ramen, which is known for its richer, oily broth, but said now that he is more mature, he leans more in favor of the lighter, Assari-style ramen popular in Tokyo.
Now in its 33rd year, Sun Noodle’s Honolulu factory generates $7 million in sales.
"I was working hard for that, with my boss and my co-workers," Suga said.
Via its mainland factories, the company services clients around the U.S. and Europe. Via distribution companies, Sun Noodle has clients in England, Paris and in Italy, better known for Italian-style pastas than ramen, saimin or chow fun noodles.
With the explosion of ramen’s popularity around the mainland, the Los Angeles plant saw revenue increase 30 percent last year, and at the New Jersey facility, established in 2012, revenue was up 300 percent "in only its second year," Uki said.
Uki plans to expand his Colburn Street production facility and office space beginning next year to "five times bigger" than its current size, he said.
Given that working at Sun Noodle makes Suga "happy doing what I’m doing," it would appear that a great deal more happiness, and perhaps millions of more noodles, will be in his future.