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SmallBiz Editor's Choice Awards 2014

Each year, Hawaii Business honors outstanding small businesses in five categories. Here are 2014’s winners.

(page 5 of 5)

Best New Business

Kau Coffee Mill, LLC

Founder: Edmund  Olson
Manager: John Cross
Nominator: Haidee Abe, First Hawaiian Bank

The team at Kau Coffee Mill includes, back row left to right, general manager John Cross, mill manager Louis Daniele, wet/dry mill staffer Chris Jara, and field orchards superintendent and roaster Lee Segawa. In the front row are retail sales associate Amery Silva, international sales coordinator Brenda Iokepa-Moses, retail sales associate Helena Carvalho and chief roaster Kalikoweo Keolanui-Daniele.

Photo: Courtesy of Kau Coffee Mill

Leo Norberte owns a 30-acre coffee farm in the remote Kau region of Hawaii Island, where rich volcanic soil, sunny mornings and rainy afternoons synchronize to yield award-winning crops.  

Despite idyllic conditions, running a business was a nightmare for Norberte and about three dozen other coffee farmers in the area. The rub: there was no local mill to roast their beans.  

Kalikoweo Keolanui-Daniele proudly stands by her Diedrich CR-50 roaster. It can roast over 100 pounds of green bean coffee in a single batch.

Photo: Courtesy of Kau Coffee Mill

To get his crop processed for sale, Norberte had to drive every Monday to Kona – a total of three hours – and return to Kona on Tuesdays to pick up the roasted coffee. “It was a real drain on all kinds of resources,” he recalls.

Life became less convoluted a few years ago, when business mogul and social entrepreneur Edmund Olson opened the Kau Coffee Mill. “I wanted to help out a community that had been financially depressed by the collapse of the sugar industry,” Olson says.  

The mill is off to a strong start, with sales of about $1.4 million in 2013. The full-service mill enables farmers to get their coffee pulped, dried, milled and roasted locally. “Now my commute is three minutes down the road,” Norberte says.   

Kau Coffee Mill has hired 10 employees and buys coffee from the local farmers for $2 a pound, which is the highest price on record in the area. Before the mill, Kau farmers would sell their coffee in Kona, where they got only about $1.50 a pound. “They were told that their coffee was traded at a discount because it was not technically grown in Kona and couldn’t be sold for a premium,” says mill manager John Cross. “That just wasn’t a fair situation.”

Today there is a movement to position Kau coffee as one of the premier specialty varieties in the world. To gain international visibility, the Kau Coffee Mill is entering high-profile contests, such as the Roasters Choice Competition, where its proprietary beans earned a Top 10 ranking in 2013.

The company already exports to Europe and China, and is eyeing other Asian markets, where the demand for coffee is rising. Roughly 50 percent of revenue was derived from international exports in 2013. Other distribution outlets include retail and online sales.

Keeping in line with its philanthropic spirit, the company plans to continue sharing its spoils with the Kau coffee farmers. It recently invested in a larger, more powerful oven to help expedite the roasting of coffee.

“My goal is to help out wherever I can,” says Olson. “I think we are making a difference.”

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