Costs put food makers at bottom of the barrel

WAIKAPU – Island food product owners agree that they have a good brand base because the Maui name is known worldwide.

On the downside, owners have to bear the higher cost of doing business in the middle of the Pacific.

“It can be very, very frustrating at times,” said Cathy Nobriga Kim of Maui’s Roselani Tropics Ice Cream, speaking on the challenges of shipping and high overhead, including the cost of utilities, in Hawaii.

During a panel discussion at the sixth annual Maui County Agricultural Festival at the Maui Tropical Plantation on Saturday, she said that by the time business owners figure out ways to minimize their costs of production, other costs may rise.

“You’re back at the bottom of the barrel (again),” she said.

Nobriga was part of a panel discussion titled “Food Innovators, Gifts of Maui” that also featured Melanie Boudar of Sweet Paradise Chocolates, Anthony LaBua-Keiser of Maui Preserved and Adam Tabura of The Spice Rack.

The longtime Maui businesswoman, who has taken over the family ice cream business that started under the Maui Soda & Ice Works label, said she had made the business work by developing a base of loyal customers who are wiling to pay higher prices for the locally made ice cream – even though her customers could turn to nationally made ice creams that sell for dollars less at grocery stores.

“We can put out a quality product. . . . (but) if I don’t have a customer base that is loyal to us, I don’t have a business,” she said.

The development of that customer base may stem from Roselani’s involvement in community events. At Saturday’s festival, for example, a school group sold Roselani Tropics Ice Cream as a fundraiser. At the Maui Fair, Roselani holds an Aloha Cherry Truffle Challenge where entrants prepare desserts from its ice cream. Funds raised from selling the samples are donated to a special fund set up by the Maui Memorial Center Foundation, which educates women in the community about breast cancer and provides mammograms to uninsured and underinsured Maui residents.

Nobriga said she’s a breast cancer survivor.

Like ice cream, Boudar said her chocolate business faces the challenges of working with a fragile product in a humid environment. She also struggles with the costs of making and packaging her chocolates with materials that cannot be found on island.

There is no big cacao farm on Maui for her to get the beans from which her chocolate is made.

“We have to bring everything in,” she told the audience.

Boudar said she is working on getting her own cacao farm started on the island and has offered to buy cacao from local growers in the meantime.

“We’re interested in buying back what you can produce,” she said.

Boudar, who has a store in Wailea Gateway Center and at Maui Tropical Plantation, said that running a business on Maui has its pluses because the Maui name is known around the world. But being made on Maui is not enough; businesses such as hers still have to produce a high-quality product.

Tabura, who was born and raised on Lanai and is the brother of comedian Lanai Tabura, also believes in the need for high quality. An executive chef at Basil Tomatoes Italian Grille in Kaanapali, he started his own spice business, The Spice Rack, less than two years ago.

Being a chef, he was inspired by spices and wanted to bring in high-quality spices from around the world. The Spice Rack is providing spices to chefs at several hotels and restaurants, such as Basil Tomatoes, Maui Fish & Pasta, Sansei, Star Noodle, Fairmont Kea Lani, Maui and The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua.

His current customers are chefs and restaurants, but he eventually would like to go into the retail sector. His problem, as a one-man operation, is that he will need to find the time to do so.

Like other local businesses, Tabura said his enterprise faces the challenge of shipping, especially since the majority of his spices have to be air freighted to Maui for freshness.

A popular local spice is a Hawaiian salt spice that he gets from Molokai with the help of a family there.

While LaBua-Keiser said he faces challenges and costs of shipping and packaging in his small retail preserves business as well, he has an advantage of meeting his customers face to face because he is a small-business owner. For example, LaBua-Keiser said that he will do cooking demonstrations at stores and meet potential customers, an advantage he has over national retailers.

Because he has a small and local business, he also can produce items that are of high quality and with locally grown products. His products are sold at various retail, resort and specialty stores on Maui and at larger establishments, such as Whole Foods and Alive and Well Natural Health Foods.

LaBua-Keiser and Maleta Van Loan, both chefs, began the business three years ago.

After the presentation, LaBua-Keiser gave some advice to Maui small food product businesses: Start slow and do not try to produce many products at once. He started with 22 products. His website currently advertises around 16 products, with some offered seasonally.

He also advised current and prospective business owners to keep their product packing as simple as possible to avoid additional packing and shipping costs.

Boudar concurred with LaBua-Keiser about not producing too many products at the outset and added that small-business owners must be able to take a step back from their businesses to refresh themselves and their business models.

This will allow owners to foster new ideas to make their businesses work better, she said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at