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Kaimuki’s Ka Lei Marketplace brings the farm closer to home

Once a week, Carol Kuniyoshi of Kaimuki visits her neighborhood store to buy a dozen eggs. The store, Ka Lei Marketplace, opened just last year on Waialae Avenue. But by providing customers with farm-fresh eggs, the small shop recalls a simpler time when customers had more direct, often face-to-face, contact with food producers.

Why make a special trip for eggs? “They’re fresher and I can tell because the yolk is higher,” says Kuniyoshi, whose family has lived in Kaimuki for 80 years.

Smart Eggs: Because freshness counts, Kalei Marketplace's Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser (left) and Lois Shimabukuro-Miyake brought their eggs directly to the consumer. photo: Karin Kovalsky

Egg production presents challenges anywhere, but Hawaii companies face added obstacles such as rising fuel prices further boosting shipping costs of feed and equipment. Factor in high costs of land, water, electricity and labor and it’s no wonder only five commercial egg producers remain statewide (four on Oahu and one on the Big Island), says Glen Fukumoto, county extension agent for the livestock program at the University of Hawaii. Egg production in Hawaii decreased from 129.4 million in 2001 to 98.3 million in 2006, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service. In terms of value, the 114.5 million eggs produced in 2005 had a sales value of nearly $9 million, according to a report by the Statistics of Hawaii Agriculture. The same year, Ka Lei had gross sales of $3 million.

The Waianae-based Ka Lei celebrates 60 years in business this November. Founded by Mankichi Shimabukuro, the company is now headed by granddaughters Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geiser and Lois Shimabukuro-Miyake. The company has demonstrated staying power in part by getting its message out: “Local fresh is mo’ bettah.”

The slogan isn’t just empty words: Ka Lei chickens are hand-fed and antibiotic-free, and their eggs are hand-collected, even if it means a smaller profit margin. “We believe it’s the human touch that matters,” says Shimabukuro-Geiser, who has an animal science degree from UH and a master’s degree in avian science from University of California at Davis. “We don’t want to see our chickens through a computer.”

Maybe this is why Ka Lei Marketplace has proven to be a winner, even though the company’s accountant questioned the move to the unassuming, street-front space formerly occupied by Kaimuki Produce.

“Boy, that was the best decision,” says Shimabukuro-Geiser, who runs Ka Lei’s production. The small store sells between 3,000 and 3,600 eggs a day, mostly to individual customers, many of whom bring in their own egg cartons to have filled for transport.

The sisters didn’t open the new store blindly: Knowing Kaimuki is a strong market and that east Honolulu customers were driving to Ka Lei’s Kalihi retail outlet, they had been keeping an eye on Kaimuki. At both stores, eggs range in price from about $3 for a tray of 30 small white eggs, to $5.90 for jumbo brown. Ka Lei’s Kalihi store remains a powerhouse, selling 9,000 to 10,000 eggs daily. Between the two stores, that may sound like a lot of eggs, but, according to Shimabukuro-Miyake, direct sales make up only about 15 percent of the business.

In 2006, Ka Lei’s gross sales stayed level at about $3 million. So far, 2007 looks steady in spite of high corn prices for feed due to stepped-up ethanol production.

So are the shops a part of a new business model? The Shimabukuro sisters laugh. “We’d love to open more of these egg boutiques,” Shimabukuro-Geiser says. “But our accountant would kill us.”

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