Manoa Chocolate — Photo courtesy of Manoa Chocolate / Mana Up
Food-loving travelers who are dreaming of a trip to Hawaii have more opportunities than ever to try some island-made food products – such as chocolate, coffee, spices, rum and more – without leaving your own home.
Over the years, many small Hawaii-based food companies have primarily relied on business from tourists purchasing their products while on vacation. As a result, most of the owners did not feel the need to establish an online presence.
During the COVID pandemic, however, the islands experienced the lowest tourism in years, and many of these individually-owned companies made some big changes to get their products to a larger audience. They enhanced their websites, upgraded packaging, launched new products and made it easier to ship to customers overall.
Through creativity and e-commerce, they are currently reaching new markets and increasing revenue. Now that tourism is coming back, they are growing even faster.
In addition, a number of these locally-owned companies have fortunately enjoyed a major boost and received some ongoing support from Mana Up, a statewide business accelerator program that helps Hawaii-based product companies grow and reach new customers – in Hawaii and the global market.
Brittany Heyd, co-founder of Mana Up, says she’s witnessing these businesses thrive firsthand. She explained, “Hawaii is becoming a hotbed for consumer product innovation. In the last few years, we’ve seen the ecosystem explode. We’re experiencing a lot of collaboration with farmers, agriculture, and new and different kinds of food products becoming available.”
She continued, We’ve seen companies double and triple in size in the past year, because they started investing in e-commerce. It’s really incredible. Also, the customer base has shifted, as people are interested in trying new brands online.”
Kōloa Rum Company
Koloa Rum store — Photo courtesy of Koloa Rum
One of the local companies that saw a recent spike in growth is the Kauai-based Kōloa Rum Company. Available online and in thirty U.S. states, Kōloa Rum opened in Kalāheo in 2009 as the first licensed distillery on the island. They produce artisanal, single-batch Hawaiian rums made with locally-grown sugarcane, filtered rainwater and quality island ingredients.
During the pandemic, Kōloa Rum shifted operations and produced hand sanitizer for local businesses. Bob Gunter, President and CEO said, “Our online sales increased 193% in 2020 over 2019. Hand sanitizer sales contributed measurably to this. However, we saw increases across all merchandise categories.”
Visitors on Kauai can go to the company’s tasting room and company store and sip a selection of their premium rums, including white, gold, dark, spice, coconut, coffee and aged varieties. The company is committed to sustainable agriculture, enhancing local employment and preserving open space.
Gunter continued, “We believe it’s important for visitors to experience authentic Hawaiian-made products as they are truly unique and like no other. Resources found in Hawaii differ from those found anywhere in the world…and by incorporating these elements, the products become a special representation of the treasured Hawaiian culture and the people behind the products.”
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Big Island Coffee Roasters
Big Island Coffee Roasters — Photo courtesy of Big Island Coffee Roasters / Mana Up
As Hawaii is one of only two U.S. states that can grow coffee beans, java fans have the opportunity to taste local, authentic coffee through Big Island Coffee Roasters, a company that creates a selection of styles and flavors through establishing solid partnerships with farmers around the area of Puna (on Hawai‘i Island) and beyond.
In addition to their noteworthy coffees, they also developed “espresso bites” and “edible coffees,” a product that resembles gourmet chocolate bars – and tastes just as delicious.
Big Island Coffee Roasters produces genuine Hawaiian coffees made with a variety of diverse, locally-grown beans with distinct flavor profiles. They also go the extra mile and pay their local farmers about 40 to 60% of the retail cost of their coffee products. Because they have so many neighboring farms, they eliminate the need for middlemen – such as exporters or shippers.
Big Island Coffee Roasters co-owner, Kelleigh Stewart, says, "On the Big Island, we're vertically integrated and close to the source. Most coffees travel in barges across oceans before getting to a warehouse and eventually end up at a roastery. We drive to a neighbor's farm, pick up 'parchment' (raw coffee), then mill it in small batches and roast it to order. So, from the customer's perspective, it's insanely fresh and flavorful."
Manoa Chocolate — Photo courtesy of Manoa Chocolate / Mana Up
Chocolate lovers can also enjoy a taste of the islands, as Hawaii happens to be one of the only U.S. states that can successfully grow cacao commercially, due to its tropical climate. As a result, Manoa Chocolate, which was launched over a decade ago by founder and chocolate maker Dylan Butterbaugh, now creates bean-to-bar delights for avid enthusiasts who appreciate the company’s commitment to sustainability.
In addition to this company’s premium dark chocolate, Manoa also produces some “flavors of Hawaii” bars that include notes of liliko’i, passion fruit and coconut. All chocolate bars have a description of exactly where in Hawaii the beans are sourced, as well as clear tasting notes printed on the packaging (with suggested pairings for wine, liquor and beer).
Most importantly, when this company works with cacao farmers across the world, they are committed to fair trade and socially responsible prices.
Heyd explained, “It’s not about money for these companies – it’s about a higher mission and accomplishing something much bigger. If you take the coffee and chocolate companies, for example, they are developing an entire agricultural industry here, working with farmers, the community and creating products that are truly the best in the world. Sometimes we call them our ‘best kept secrets’ because the quality is incredible and the sourcing and collaboration with the farmers is really impressive.”
Liko Lehua Butters
Liko Lehua Butters — Photo courtesy of Link Lehua Butters / Mana Up
There are a wide variety of other noteworthy and unique Hawaiian food companies that produce authentic products that can be purchased online. They can be found across the islands, including Liko Lehua, a small producer of exceptionally delicious homemade butters with colorful, tropical flavors inspired by the fruits of Hawaii, such as mango, pineapple and guava.
The company is run by Native Hawaiian entrepreneur, Dawn Kleinfelder, and her husband, Matt, who own a popular café by the same name in Hilo on Hawaii's Big Island. The name of the company honors the lehua groves that grew on her great-great grandmother's land many years ago – and the butters are versions of family recipes from generations past.
Manele Spice Co.
Malele Spice Co. — Photo courtesy of Manele Spice Co. / Mana Up
Another island-based business is the Manele Spice Co. that produces an array of inventive salt and spice blends made with Hawaiian ocean rock salts combined with a variety of all-natural ingredients. It’s owned by award-winning chef Adam Tabura, who grew up on the island of Lanai. He's a cookbook author who has appeared on the Food Network several times, including "Cutthroat Kitchen" and, most recently, was the winner of the "Great Food Truck Race."
Chef Adam launched Manele Spice Co. to capture the distinctive flavors of Hawaii in easy-to-use salt blends, so home cooks can purchase these spices online and add some Hawaii-inspired zest to their own creations. The spices can be purchased individually or in gift packages online.
According to Heyd, once consumers from the mainland get a literal “taste” of these unique products and simultaneously learn about the people behind the scenes creating these products, these businesses begin to attract a loyal following, which enhances economic diversification.
She says, “When people learn about the great things these small companies are doing, it helps the businesses accomplish their mission, improve quality and continue to find local sourcing and support our farmers – it’s a really special process and a benefit to our community to have these businesses.”
With all of these Hawaii-made products available for purchase online, consumers who want to re-live their vacations (or share some of these delicacies with their friends and family) can easily order and access products online.
And for visitors who may eventually find themselves in Hawaii, there’s a new brick-and-mortar retail shop, House of Mana Up in Waikiki, so many of these Hawaiian-made foods (and other products) made by entrepreneurs can sampled and be purchased together in one store.