How Businesses Survive Off the Beaten Path
The idyllic drive down Kamehameha Highway on Oahu’s Windward Coast conjures thoughts of an Old Hawaii. For some travelers, it’s a lazy thoroughfare for circle island tours. For others, it’s home.
For most small businesses along that winding road, livelihood is dependent on those curious enough to stop. As you might expect, each of those businesses has its own unique story and unique services, like the guitar-playing, sometimes-singing gift shop owner in Hauula to a generations-old fruit stand in Waikane, whose longevity landed it on a prominent tourist’s map. Those businesses share similar challenges as well as strategies to thrive along one of Oahu’s most rural drives.
Here’s a look at how they succeed off the beaten path, though just about any business can learn from their roadside success.
Heading out of Kaneohe, just north of Kahaluu Elementary School, an expansive mural pops out beyond some trees. Although the painting depicts a view of the nearby Koolaus, Chinaman’s Hat and the ocean, the Day-Glo bright colors bring a surreal contrast to the surrounding natural setting.
Then the rest of the bright yellow building emerges before drivers as green letters, two-feet high, shout “Art Gallery.” On the other side of the building is the full name - Sunshine Arts Hawaii. Laetitia Atlantis, gallery manager, says the drive-by experience happens a lot. “People pass by, then turn around and stop in,” she says.
Many of the businesses in the area don’t advertise. Only the signage on Kamehameha Highway flags down first-time visitors. For Sunshine Arts Gallery, the whole visual experience seems to say, “Come on in, because even when it’s raining, it’s always sunny here.”
Not every sign needs to be two stories high. Up the road in Waikane, a worn white sign leans against a telephone post. Green handwriting announces “Ice Cold Coconuts.” Around the bend, under a gray tarp, stand half-a-dozen visitors, picking up a variety of fruits for sale. A man behind the table grabs a coconut in his left hand, and deftly smacks the coconut across the top. He inserts a straw into the hole and hands it to a visitor. After taking a sip, the visitor exclaims, “Everything’s better in Hawaii!”
Visitors here pull over for that rural ambience - and a little history.
Because on any given day, Richard Davis or his son Alakai will be under the tarp working the family business. His grandfather started the fruit stand, which abuts the family farm, in 1976. It was passed on to his mother, and now he and his father run the stand. In fact, it has been there for so many years and so dependably, it is featured in a prominent tourist map.
“We’re the only fruit stand on the map because we’ve been here so long,” Davis says.
The hard part is getting customers to stop. But it’s hospitality that keeps them.
“If you’re looking at the dollar sign on the forehead, you’re in trouble,” says Stephen Paty, owner of Tropical Farms in Kaaawa. He and his wife Chrissy teach all of their employees to look at visitors not as customers but as individuals who should be treated as guests in their home. “Many people that come here have worked very hard and have saved their money a really long time in order to come to Hawaii,” Stephen says. “We are very fortunate to have them pass through our doors.”
No one is ever bumped out of line for favorites. They overstaff to ensure hospitable service, making the visitors’ experience one they are going to remember. They provide free samples, from BBQ sauce to coffee, so the customer knows what they’re buying.
Occasionally, they’ll even do some unorthodox business practices. “For instance, if they’re short or if something happened to their credit card, we will let them take it,” Chrissy says. “We don’t want to humiliate them, we trust them. And you know, they’ll send us the check and advertise for us,” by telling their friends about that experience.
“We just say, ‘Let’s just bag this up and you can send us a check,’” Stephen says. “It blows their mind, but they always send it. It’s something that they’ve never experienced.”
Variety Is King
Fawwaz Jubran understands he is at a great disadvantage running a gift shop for tourists visiting from Waikiki. His Hauula Gift Shop & Art Gallery has many similar items found at Waikiki gift shops. But Waikiki shops can’t offer the ambiance of the Windward Side.
But a key for him is not forgetting about the local market. Even though he is far out in Hauula, he refreshes his inventory frequently for local people, who might not want to drive into Honolulu to pick up a gift.
“Customers always come back and find new stuff,” he says.
He also has plenty of variety. Jurban stocks Hawaii-made coffee, miniature tiki statues, wooden bowls, masks, North Shore T-shirts, board shorts and Crocs footwear. He also has silk aloha shirts that sell for less than $70, sarongs and even barbecue sauces.
A year ago, he opened up a small art gallery in the corner of the store, too.
At Sunshine Arts Hawaii, 65 artists from around the state have their work on display. There are ceramics, lacquered lamps, glasswork, prints and original oil paintings, pastels and watercolors. Gallery Manager Laetitia Atlantis even sells her own handmade jewelry. It’s accessible to anyone appreciative of art, with prices as low as $10 for an unframed photograph of a monk seal to a $3,000 framed original oil painting of nearby Heeia Harbor. The art gallery also has an in-house frame shop, making it possible for visitors to buy a painting, frame it and ship it all in one stop.
|Davis Fruit Stand|
On a late November day, the Waikane fruit stand owned by Richard Davis had apple bananas, coconuts, oranges, papaya, jabong (Chinese grapefruit), pineapples and tangerines. During other parts of the year, the stand can be filled with seasonal fruits, such as avocados, breadfruit, guava, jackfruit, lemon, limes, lychee, mango, mountain apple, starfruit and soursop.
“You should see this during the summer. It’s packed,” says Richard “Alakai” Davis Jr. All of the fruit, except for the pineapple, is sourced within a three-mile radius, growing on the Davis’ 6-acre farm or on neighbors’ farms. Produce prices fluctuate from day to day, depending on the quality and supply of the product.
Tropical Farms sells the products of 86 different businesses, from food items like macadamia nuts and pineapple sweet breads to cosmetic products such as kukui nut oil. But the company packages and sells two distinct products. Chrissy does an annual cupping, or tasting, for a Tropical Farms Kona macadamia nut coffee. On the label is a black and white photo of Chrissy’s parents.
A package of Tropical Farms raw sugar from Maui features Stephen’s parents on the label. The products are only sold at the Kaaawa location. Having their parents on the labels makes the products very personal, and it is the reason they won’t sell them anywhere else.
In 1986, Tropical Farms opened as a small stand outside of the Paty’s home, near Sunset Beach. Instead of fruits, they sold Macadamia Nuts growing on Kamananui Orchard in Waialua. It was a real cottage industry with both Stephen and Chrissy working everyday at home to make their business successful.
Since then, they’ve moved seven times.
There were times when it was “a small stand, with my Hawaiian flag and a coffee pot maker,” Chrissy says. The couple remembers going onto tour buses with their coffee and macadamia nuts, serving seated visitors like they were on an airplane. They’ve moved because of rising costs. They were in a garage at the old Tanaka Store in Kahuku, paying $800 a month in rent. When new owners came in, the rent skyrocketed to $6,000 a month. “They see a little success and the greed comes out,” Stephen says.
They survived the Waimea rock slide of 2000, when the circle island route was disconnected at Waimea Bay. They split operations, half in Kahuku and half in Haleiwa, so tour drivers could reach them from both directions. In 2001, Tropical Farms moved to its current location, leasing two acres of land from Kualoa Ranch. Despite the moves, people still find them. “The business has followed us through the years,” Chrissy says.
“We’ve had a relationship with a lot of these (tour) drivers for a long time, since the beginning. Over 20 years, they’re still coming to see us,” Stephen says. “And that’s the heart of the operation. Without them, it would make it harder to do business.” Today, the business sees about 700 to 800 visitors a day. Annually, 275,000 visitors came in 2006, a number that has remained constant, Stephen says. Annual sales were not disclosed, but “we feel good about what we’ve done and seen increases every year.”
Live the Dream
|Hauula Gift Shop & Art Gallery|
Since childhood, Fawwaz Jubran has wanted to be a recording artist. “But sometimes, being an artist means you can’t pay the bills very quickly,” he says. Originally from Palestine, he moved to Hawaii 28 years ago, working in a number of retail businesses, including Waikiki gift shops. In 2002, he bought the old Ching Tong Laong Store in Hauula. He lives in the building and owns and operates the store.
No longer within the hustle and bustle of town but amidst the laid-back nature of the Windward Coast, he started learning the guitar, practicing and singing while tending shop. In two years, he became a prolific songwriter, and in the last 10 months he’s written more than 50 original songs. Customers stop and listen, and enjoy his music so much, he says, that they wanted to take it home.
In response, he has teamed up with local producer Pierre Grill on a 12-track album. The eclectic sound features Jubran singing 10 songs in English and two songs in Arabic, his native tongue. Behind the counter, he keeps a small box with over 150 business cards. On each are the names and addresses of people reserving a copy of the CD.
But the biggest dream of all is living in the countryside of Oahu, and working there, too.
Jubran lives in the same building as the gift shop.
The Davis fruit stand is in front of their farm.
And all 22 of Tropical Farms employee live between Kaneohe and Hauula.
“They live in the country,” says Tropical Farms’ Chrissy Paty. “They want to work among the people and still be in the country. É They want to visit the Mainland, but they don’t want to live there. They’re Hawaiian and it’s Hawaii. This is a good place for them to work.”
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