Local business owners urge workshop attendees to find a niche and go for it

Maui Soda & Ice, Hasegawa’s, Accel share the secrets of their successes

Catherine Nobriga Kim of Maui Soda & Ice Works and Roselani Ice Cream explains how Roselani has worked to keep its product relevant over the years. Nobriga Kim was among the longtime business owners who spoke to entrepreneurs and small business owners at a workshop at the Maui Research & Technology Park last week. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photos

To taste-test a beverage at Maui Soda & Ice Works, Manuel Nobriga used to grab a bottle off the line, down it all at once and let out a solid belch.

“If the belch wasn’t right, he would change it,” said his granddaughter Catherine Nobriga Kim. “So he made ice cream the same way. It was all by taste. It wasn’t by science. My dad learned from him, and he did it the same way.”

Two generations later, Maui Soda’s Roselani Ice Cream brand is still around because it’s kept the things that made it special — local ownership and local flavors.

Nobriga Kim was among the longtime Maui business operators who spoke at a workshop last week at the Maui Research & Technology Center in Kihei, sharing tips for building a successful product or service with startups and small businesses.

Maui Soda & Ice Works started out in 1884 in Kahului. The company bottled flavored soda water and sold electricity that it generated for the ice.

Neil Hasegawa

Nobriga started working there in 1920. He was the beverage manager but had also taken a liking to ice cream, and after Haleakala Dairy decided to stop manufacturing ice cream in 1932, Nobriga asked owner Ralph Wadsworth if he could bring ice cream production to Maui Soda. He started with a mix from Honolulu but eventually concocted his own special recipe.

In the 1970s, after years of packaging ice cream for Dairymen’s (now Meadow Gold), Maui Soda decided to market its own product. Nobriga Kim’s father, David “Buddy” Nobriga, started asking people at community meetings what they would call the ice cream brand. They narrowed it down to Roselani, “which is the Americanized version of Lokelani, which is the flower of Maui,” Nobriga Kim said.

“My name is not Rose. My mother’s name is not Rose. His mother’s name wasn’t Rose. That’s how we got Roselani Ice Cream,” she said.

Roselani worked with the independent stores, like Ah Fook’s, but then national chains started to come into the market, bringing other brands with “American flavors.”

“As Mainland brands started to come in, they all had the same assortment,” Nobriga Kim said. “So what made us different from them other than made in Maui?”

Scott Rabe of Accel Event Rentals chats with a local entrepreneur during a break in the workshop.

At local “scoop shops,” Roselani’s local flavors sold well. So, in the 1980s, they opted for an island-inspired line — Roselani Tropics, which helped distinguish the brand and got it into Neighbor Island markets in 2000.

“Those flavors were the ones the chain stores accepted, because it was different,” Nobriga Kim said.

She recalled one day in the early 1990s when she was at Safeway in Kahului and noticed an empty shelf with tags for Roselani Tropics Ice Cream. She jumped in her car, drove to the plant and delivered more ice cream to the store that very day. Then, she called the Lahaina Safeway to ask about their Roselani stock; they were out too. So she went back to the plant and hightailed it in Lahaina to make another delivery, “because lost opportunity is lost opportunity.”

In 2004, the company realized that the Tropics line was its niche and dropped the “American” flavors, though some of them made comebacks under local-style monikers (mint chip became “Menehune Mint”). Over the years, the company whittled down its flavors to “a good group of seven,” Haupia, Kona Mud Pie, Hawaiian Vanilla Bean, Chocolate Macadamia Nut, Classic (Vanilla) Macadamia Nut, Mango ‘n Cream and Pa’uwela Sunrise.

In March, the company announced it would be introducing a new retail carton and several special edition flavors, which Nobriga Kim said is crucial to keeping Roselani relevant. For businesses that have been around as long as it has, it’s easy to get stagnant.

Nobriga Kim said that when she became president and general manager four years ago, she brought in a family business consultant, and last year she hired a dedicated human resources employee to survey the 80-person staff about what they wanted to see in terms of vacation time, sick leave and medical benefits. The company then worked on a benefits package that would give employees physical, financial and mental stability, and for the first time it will be announcing a Manager of the Year.

Nobriga Kim said it’s important to “surround yourself with people who are talented and allow them to try an idea, make a mistake and get up and start again.”

“In the case of ice cream, if we’re experimenting with a formula, you can always take the mistake and create something else,” she said. “If it’s going to be an expensive mistake, then we’re going to push not to do it and find an alternative, smaller steps.”

She added that Roselani hasn’t ventured into the non-dairy market because “as a small company, if we start competing against the big boys, we tend to lose our space.” In the retail market, it’s all about real estate. She said that Roselani used to do big, two-for-$5 promotions until they noticed that people were only buying because they figured out the cycle. So they stopped.

“We lost some volume, but then right now I can say we brought it all back up because we went back to customer loyalty instead of making it all about price,” Nobriga Kim said.

For Roselani, product is important, but it’s all about relationships — with employees, with vendors and with customers, she said.

Heartbeat of Hana

Hasegawa General Store didn’t develop a signature product like Maui Soda did, but part of the reason the business has survived for so long is that it offers key services to the Hana community.

“I think one of the main things that I can tell you guys is listen to the heartbeat,” said Neil Hasegawa, president of the general store. “What I’ve learned is that every community on this island has its own heartbeat.”

So, in addition to food and drinks, home goods and car supplies, souvenirs and T-shirts, Hasegawa’s also does recycling for the Hana community. It handles UPS and Fedex deliveries, calling residents when a package has arrived at the store for them.

“The theory about that is, you know what, any time you can get somebody to come into the store, they gonna buy something,” Hasegawa said.

Hasegawa General Store started in 1910 with Hasegawa’s great-grandfather Shoichi Hasegawa and great-grand uncle Saburo Hasegawa, sugar cane plantation workers from Japan who decided to open up a store when their contracts were over. At the time, Hana was a bustling community, but as the plantations left, much of the population moved to Central Maui to work in the cane fields there. The Hasegawas stayed behind because they felt the store could survive. Eventually, ownership was passed down to Toshimasa Hasegawa, then to Harry Hasegawa, then to Neil Hasegawa — the fourth generation. After a fire destroyed the old store in 1990, it moved to its current location in the old Hana theater. The old site is now a gas station and small food truck court.

While a staple of the local community, Neil Hasegawa had to get creative to promote his family’s business outside of Hana. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, he started looking for a good advertising venue. He couldn’t afford full-page ads in big tour guides, and most of the small businesses in Hana couldn’t either. So he put together a foldable map called “The Hana Visitor’s Guide.” It included the history of Hana and the store, the different names around Hana and what they meant. And, on the map, he placed blurbs for free about every business that wanted to be on there.

“The internet wasn’t that big yet,” he said. “So we kept publishing that, and I kept absorbing the cost, and it worked.”

He got the map into the Kahului Airport and west side hotels, and people started picking them up. Then, someone got the rights to the website hanamaui.com, and approached Hasegawa about putting content on it. He agreed to put everything that was on the map on the website — with a soft sell for the store.

“What I learned was the lodging people are the ones that really benefited because they didn’t have to pay anything, and it went straight to their websites,” he said. “Again, the theory is if they stay in Hana, the odds of them shopping at the store is gonna be greater.”

Hasegawa said that the site is now being transferred to the Hana Business Council, which plans to redesign and upgrade it with information on the general store and other local businesses, as well as things like a schedule of events.

Life of a business

Scott Rabe’s event rental business started at the age of 14 with a small inventory of dishware and wedding props. It was the brainchild of Rabe’s father, a caterer who saw rentals as the perfect complement to his catering operations.

Twenty-five years later, Accel Event Rentals has ballooned into the biggest and busiest event rental company in the state. Last year, the company produced more than 6,000 events, an average of 16 a day. It has more than 170 employees between Oahu and Maui, where it expanded last year, and about 30,000 square feet of warehouse space.

Over the years, Rabe learned that every business goes through the same stages — birth, growth, maturity, decline and exit. How businesses fare at each stage depends on how well they plan.

Every business is born with an idea, which then needs to be put down on paper, Rabe said.

“A lot of people have business plan phobia, right?” Rabe said. “This big ordeal, this big paper. The one I drafted in university — not for business but just for fun or for a grade — was 400 pages long. It doesn’t have to be that. It can be scratched on the back of a napkin.”

In any business, there are three basic pillars — price, quality and service, Rabe said. Business owners have to choose what to prioritize and what to sacrifice. For example, you can’t have top quality items and still offer the lowest prices.

“If your price is . . . super super expensive, then you better either have amazing service or super crazy quality,” Rabe said.

Financials are a major part of the birthing process. Rabe recommended that businesses outline key things like profits, losses and cash flow before diving headlong into operations. He encouraged them to write a budget and stick to it.

“If you don’t know your numbers, you might get lucky. You might be successful,” Rabe said. “But more times than not you’re going to fail, and you’re going to fail big.”

After birth is growth, where business owners need to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses as well as opportunities and threats. They may need to risk revenue on new products in the short term that will help them reach a higher plateau in the long term.

The plateaus are the maturity phase, where things are going well and the business is bringing in steady revenue. Rabe recommended doing three things during this stage: building “a moat” around the business by protecting against threats; diversifying products or services; and staying focused.

By now it’s good for business owners to start planning their exit, though the exit doesn’t have to happen right away, Rabe said. He suggested putting together a personal plan that outlines where a business owner wants to be in 90 days, a year and 10 to 25 years.

“Nobody thinks 10 to 25 years into the future,” Rabe said. “But it’s really important to sort of know where you’re going way out there so that your trajectory right now is leading you towards that.”

Then, finally, comes the exit, which can mean either closing down as a business or becoming something new. Rabe pointed to the example of Marvel, whose sales were declining until Disney bought them and turned them into a mega-movie franchise.

Sometimes, an exit also means cutting ties with a partner or contractor. Rabe recalled working with an ice carver who was immensely talented but struggled to make deadlines. One day he failed to put together a carving in time for a wedding, forcing Rabe to deliver a backup sculpted fish to a crestfallen groom who’d ordered a custom heart for his bride.

“The look on his face told me that it was time for an exit,” Rabe said. “Very next day I called the carver up (and said) ‘we are done.’ “

Rabe said that “exit strategies can be done thoughtfully, can be done well,” but the key is to plan ahead.

“Exit will become a part of your life at some point,” Rabe said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.