Hold the milk and sugar. The Hanalei Poi Co. makes a poi that never goes sour, tastes sweeter and might last for six months in your fridge.
Like many Kauai taro farmers, Bino Fitzgerald and Hobey Beck had always dreamed of opening their own poi mill, but the prospect seemed daunting. After all, it’s hard enough growing taro, let alone managing the day-to-day operations of a mill, not to mention figuring out the distribution of the resulting product. But several years ago, when Fitzgerald’s Honolulu mill told him that he had produced too much taro that season, the third-generation taro farmer felt that the time was right to make some poi.
“We have always been told how much we could grow or sell and what price we would receive,” Fitzgerald says. “It was so limiting to depend on mills on Oahu.”
One of the first things that Fitzgerald did was to try and register the name “Hanalei Poi Co.,” but he quickly discovered that the name was already owned by Beck, a nearby farmer who he was only vaguely familiar with. After a short telephone conversation, the two compared notes and aspirations and decided to pool their monies and their taro fields and go into business with each other.
In April of 1999 Hanalei Poi Co., located in Hanalei Town in an old GTE switching station, milled its first batch of poi — 200 pounds of it. It was the first poi milled commercially in the island since 1965. But what is more significant than where it is milled was how it is milled. In a yet-to-be-patented process, Hanalei Poi Co. minimizes the amount of handling of the taro, peeling and cutting the root before cooking. The result is a more sterile process that yields a product without the ever-present bacteria cultures found in traditionally milled poi. Therefore, Hanalei’s poi, which requires refrigeration, will not sour and has a cleaner, even sweet taste. (Fitzgerald reports that one of his customers claimed that the poi stayed fresh in his refrigerator for six months. Fitzgerald doesn’t recommend that you keep his product in the fridge that long, but he does guarantee his poi’s freshness for seven to 10 days.)
And, according to Beck, since the taro is grown and milled in the same place, Hanalei Poi is a fresher product, taking as little as three days from harvest to supermarket shelf as opposed to over one week for other pois.
“One of the first things that we found out in our market research was that the average age of poi eaters was somewhere near 50,” Beck says. “We needed to target a younger market and create a poi that was ready to eat and fresher tasting. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have much of a market in 10 to 20 years.”
With their new product in hand, Fitzgerald and Beck pounded the pavement, first knocking on the doors of the mom-and-pop stores throughout the state, then working their way up to the major supermarkets. The poi, sold in one-pound tubs, retails from between $4 to $5, about a dollar or two more than traditionally milled poi.
“We wanted to give the small shops the first chance,” Fitzgerald says. “We also figured that once the word-of-mouth got around, it would be easier to get into the big boys. We believed that if we got a broad enough base, things would snowball.”
And snowball it did.
“I started carrying the poi because these guys were just starting out, and I wanted to give them a chance,” says Cliff Tamura, chief executive officer of Tamura Superette in Waianae. “Sales were good from the outset. It slowed for a little while, then picked up again and has been strong ever since.”
Tamura, who says he prefers rice, wouldn’t disclose any sales figures but did say that he is continually surprised at the success of Hanalei Poi on the Waianae Coast, considering that it is more expensive than the other pois he carries. “Things are a little depressed out here, but people are buying this product,” Tamura says.
And Waianae isn’t alone in developing a taste for the new poi. Today, Hanalei Poi is in every major supermarket in the state. In 1999, Fitzgerald and Beck had $300,000 in gross sales with a staff of four, which did both milling and the delivering. In 2000, that number almost tripled to $900,000 and staffing grew to 25. Fitzgerald is forecasting a little more than a million dollars in sales for 2001. The company now mills about 8,000 pounds a week. Just as planned, Hanalei Poi is a big hit with young children and families. Even the poi-adverse visitor market has been receptive to the product.
“This is really one of those special stories that hasn’t come along for a long time,” says Bill Spitz, economic development specialist with Kauai’s Office of Economic Development. “These guys aren’t your typical farmers. They have their market research, their pagers and their cell phones. These are the kinds of kids we usually lose to the mainland.”
The business partners’ most pressing worries right now are keeping a steady supply of taro and not growing the business too quickly. “It seems as if we’re tearing an awful lot of things down and building new things lately” Fitzgerald says. “We are also working with other farmers and buying taro from them. It takes time. Taro is a 14-month crop, so it’s not like you can pick up the phone and order it.”
In June Hanalei Poi Co. began shipping poi to Longs Drugs Stores in Las Vegas. Later this summer, they also will start selling their poi in several hotels in the city as well as Longs Drugs Stores in Seattle and San Francisco, cities that also have large numbers of Hawaiian expats.
Back in Hanalei, the pair plans to expand taro offerings, along with introducing a high-end lomi lomi salmon. They also have leased the three acres adjacent to their factory and plan on building a small taro field and visitors center, where tourists can get an up-close look at a working taro patch and maybe even a taste of Hanalei Poi.
“People thought we were nuts to want to sell an up-market poi. ‘You guys are farmers, not manufacturers,’ they said,” says Fitzgerald. “We just wanted to introduce people to the poi that we made and loved at home and people just love it.”
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