By ERIN MILLER
A year ago, the Kona Natural Soap Co. might go two or three days without receiving any online orders.
These days, co-owner Greg Colden said, orders come in daily.
“We’re their little box of aloha that can come for $40 or $50 instead of a plane ticket,” Colden said.
The company’s soaps, made by Colden at his North Kona farm, are popular with a certain type of visitor, the kind of traveler looking for something more than a T-shirt that says Hawaii or trinket mass produced outside of the state, Colden said. Local buyers pick up the soaps, too. Colden said he has one repeat customer who is only able to afford his soap orphans — half price bars of soap, combining all scents, formed from the remnants of single-scent batches — which cost $3.50 apiece.
The woman has told him she hopes to one day be able to afford the full priced bars. Until then, she makes a habit of bringing visiting friends and relatives to his Alii Gardens shop. Those visitors, Colden said, usually leave with several bars of the $6.50 soap.
“I believe that we are coming out of this horrible recession we entered in 2008,” Colden said. “I see it as people tired of denying themselves nice things. We’re a relatively inexpensive luxury.”
Colden also sees a population living on Hawaii Island that is committed to the idea of supporting their friends and neighbors. He described some of the people who move to Hawaii as the “nuts and granola people,” who are “willing to spend their hard earned dollars to buy local, support local.”
He also sees a separation of haves and have nots, he said. Those who have, he said, are not ostentatious in how they spend their money, but they want quality goods.
“I see a huge amount of people who are my regulars who say this is all I would ever use,” he said.
Hazel Beck, director of the Hawaii Small Business Development Center in Kona, said that’s an attitude she keeps in mind when she shops. Given the choice, she said, she’ll pick a local product or a locally owned store over a national one any time.
Beck is seeing businesses coming to her looking for local products they can use in their own products, as well as local services to support their own businesses.
“If they’re trying to create a business around a food product, they’re trying to use as much locally made, locally grown as possible,” Beck said. “There’s a real increase in people thinking consciously, any raw material or service, can I get it in the islands?”
She saw the shift start during the recession.
“The Great Recession really had people rethinking what they were doing,” Beck said. “It hit this island particularly hard.”
At the nadir of the recession, Hawaii Island’s unemployment rate was higher than 17 percent, she said. That was one in five adults who would normally be working that didn’t have a job.
People began asking themselves how they could help others, she said.
Barbara Anderson, owner of Hawaiian Granola Co., expanded from running a bed and breakfast to selling homemade granola because people asked her to do so. She developed the granola to serve at the Shipman House Bed & Breakfast in Hilo.
“I wanted something that had a sense of place, so they were able to eat something that was unique to Hawaii Island,” Anderson said.
She said customers spent the better part of a decade asking where they could buy the granola, which features macadamia nuts, macadamia nut honey, coconut flakes, ginger and even Kona coffee. Like some of the business owners Beck has met, Anderson said she wanted to source as much of the granola ingredients here as possible. The biggest challenge for her product, she said, is getting the oats.
“If it’s grown on the island, you can get it,” Anderson said. “Oats aren’t grown here. You’re at the mercy of the people shipping here.”
Another big hurdle to getting started, she said, was just finding a certified kitchen where she could bake the granola. She said she knows of other island food producers who rented restaurant kitchens when the restaurants were closed, usually in the middle of the night, to cook. Anderson decided she wanted her own kitchen. Once she found the ideal site, a former meat packing plant’s employee lounge, it took more than a year to navigate the permitting process and get the construction completed to begin making and selling the granola.
The results, though, have been good, she said. KTA, her first retail choice, carries the granola for about $11 a bag. Resorts serve it for breakfast and at least one West Hawaii restaurant used to serve it.
“It’s amazing how much I have to stock,” Anderson said. “It’s pretty much word of mouth and people look for it.”
People looking for other locally produced items sometimes end up at a Naalehu farmers market, Ka‘u Chamber of Commerce President Dallas Decker said. Hot items right now include shark tooth blades, walking sticks and other turned wood products, especially koa items, as well as jewelry and lauhala crafts.
“They’re willing to pay some of the prices for real craftsmanship,” Decker said. “They want to take something home that’s authentically Hawaiian. I hear that all the time.”
Email Erin Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.