Hole In One

This Is It Bakery Honolulu

This Is It Bakery And Deli has been cranking out tasty bagels and other baked treats in Kaka‘ako since 1979.

Text by James Charisma |Images by John Hook

Our name has two meanings,” says Steve Gelson, owner of This Is It Bakery and Deli. “The first is what people say when they bite into one of our bagels or bread or donuts and taste the quality—that this is the real deal, you’ve found it. The second meaning is about the bakery itself—that this is the one we’re putting everything into, this is it.”

More than 35 years ago, in 1979, Hawaiian Bagel was what husband and wife owners Steve and Mona Gelson were beginning to put everything into, with the help of a loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration and Steve Gelson’s father-in-law, who loved bagels. Before moving to Hawai‘i, Steve, who was born in Brooklyn, was restaurant manager at Bloomingdale’s in Manhattan. Here, he met Mona, a college girl from Hawai‘i who was working at the store’s espresso bar. The two would send gifts of bagels back to Mona’s family on Maui, and her father joked that Steve should open a bagel shop in Hawai‘i to skip having to mail them. So after he and Mona married, they did just that.

But it wasn’t exactly a piece of cake. “People weren’t eating bagels in Hawai‘i back then. Sandwiches neither; it was all plate lunches,” recalls Steve, who remembers their early years in the bagel business as being a struggle. But in time, Hawai‘i customers discovered the duo’s original company, Hawaiian Bagel, and visitors turned into regulars. Soon, the Gelsons were struggling to keep up with demand. “We used to have five trucks on the roads because we were supplying to everybody. We did all the supermarkets, the military, big box stores,” Steve says.

This Is It Bakery Honolulu

When the Gelsons’ lease ran out in 1999, the couple closed Hawaiian Bagel and opened This Is It Bakery and Deli, settling in to a warehouse on Cooke Street just two blocks away from their former location on Halekauwila Street. Here, they’ve expanded their selection to include cakes, pies, and donuts (Steve says that cake is now their best seller). Baking begins at 3 or 4 a.m., when the bagels are made; donuts are whipped up in the afternoon, and bread and rolls are baked in the evening. Because of this nonstop schedule, a walk down Cooke Street at nearly any time of day means encountering the unmistakable, rich aroma of freshly baked goods.

“Kaka‘ako’s really changed. With everything happening around here, we’ve had a lot more foot traffic and people stopping by,” Steve says. “Luckily, we just have to get them in here one time to try the food and say hello, and they’ll usually come back.”

Today, Steve still spends much of his time in the kitchen, while Mona spearheads the paperwork and the company’s second location, This Is It … Too, in downtown Honolulu. “I come in every day around 10 or 11 a.m. and stay until midnight or 1 a.m.,” says Steve. “If you own your own business, it kind of ends up consuming a big part of your life, no way around it. Doesn’t matter what kind of business you’re in; everybody puts in the hours.”

For Steve, the important part is that you love what you do. And his favorite part? “Eating bagels,” he says with a laugh. “A good business owner has to sample the products, you know.”

This Is It Bakery and Deli is located at 443 Cooke Street. Hours are 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. For more information, visit thisisitbakeryanddeli.com.