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Kitchen’s closing steams tiny firms

  • FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARADVERTISER.COM
    The state Department of Health’s shutdown last month of First Commercial Kitchen, shown above, hurt many small businesses that relied on the company to produce sauces and salad dressings.
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When the state Department of Health shut down First Commercial Kitchen last month, some small businesses were hit in the pocketbook because the Waipio plant was "the only game in town" to produce their sauces and salad dressings.

"For a lot of people, that’s their sole income, and they’ve been hurt drastically and some of them are probably going to end up going out of business," said Pacific Poultry Vice President Brent Hancock. "It’s going to hurt us horrendously. The Huli-Huli Sauce is our sole income, but we are better capital-wise than some of the others."

Pacific Poultry, one of First Commercial’s biggest customers, is losing $30,000 a month and has roughly $40,000 to $50,000 in Huli-Huli Sauce sitting in First Commercial’s and distributors’ warehouses and back rooms of supermarkets.

Three weeks after the Health Department issued on Jan. 25 a massive recall of about 150 products listed on the website of First Commercial Kitchen, seven remain to be taken off the recall list, and the plant remains closed. Some products were no longer produced at First Commercial, and others were cleared after testing.

Health Department spokeswoman Janice Okubo said last week the plant might reopen soon.

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a recall on Ohana Flavors Black Bean Sauce and Barb’s Black Bean Sauce after testing in January found the products failed to meet standards for water activity and acidity levels, indicators of whether conditions are ripe for botulism growth.

A Health Department official said the recall was made to protect the public’s health in light of the FDA recall, not to hurt businesses. Department officials repeatedly asked for a current list of products, but owner Peter Kam failed to produce one and also failed to keep any records of tests, the official said.

Kam declined to comment about the recall.

The Health Department "probably used this as leverage to get the opposing party to comply," said Daniel Kaslow, part-owner of DaKine Enterprises BBQ & Salad Dressings. The agency’s actions might have cost businesses thousands of dollars and tarnished the reputations of businesses and restaurants that had products made at the plant at one time or another, he said.

Steven Geimer, owner of Arturo’s Hot Sauces, spent $1,800 to have 35 products tested, and all have been cleared. But the recall immediately prompted retailers to pull Arturo’s tortillas, produced elsewhere, off shelves.

"You got people’s livelihoods in these products," said Geimer, who had to let his staff of two full-timers and a part-timer go. "You’re guilty until you’re proven innocent. … They had to protect public health, but they took down 30 or 40 companies."

Geimer said he’s having to overcome negative publicity to persuade buyers to put the products back on the shelves.

Kaslow said, "Maybe they (health officials) just didn’t know what they were doing when they did it and they just made a bad decision."

But judging from "the speed of my exoneration, maybe they felt they made a mistake and tried to repair it as quickly as possible," he said.

Kaslow and his partners went to the Health Department to clear their products from the recall list but were met by reporters and TV cameras at a news conference, and bottles of their products were shown on TV news spots day after day.

Pacific Poultry spent $750 for three testings at an independent Honolulu laboratory. Hancock said the lab tested its sauce for bacteria and staph count and found it safe.

Although the product did not meet the current water activity and pH level standards, Hancock said the Health Department informed him it will be adopting new regulations in line with federal ones and that his product would then be considered safe.

He said the company had switched from Yamasa Shoyu to Lum Kee Soy Sauce, a nationally recognized brand, which caused a change in the water activity and acidity levels.

He said the department is holding up Pacific Poultry’s release from the recall list because of the "sanitary conditions" at the plant as well as for not meeting current water and acidity standards.

Hancock, the vice president, questions why other products produced at the plant were released from the recall list if sanitary conditions were questionable.

Okubo said after business hours Thursday that she could not confirm that information until tomorrow.

Geimer said his company has nowhere to go but back to Kam.

"Nobody has a processing facility like he has," he said.

Geimer has entertained the idea of having the hot sauces produced on the mainland because the production cost would be cut in half.

"I’ve stayed in Hawaii because I really want to support the local economy and not rip off the Hawaii name," he said.

Geimer is contemplating setting up a small facility to give people a choice, and hopes for some "white knights" or someone to partner with him.

"Without a production facility, our demise is being stretched out," he said.

Owners of FuManChew Chili Pepper Water, a small, family-owned business, had also tried to figure out how to produce their own product but ran up against too many obstacles. Kam’s plant had everything needed, including bottling capability with an assembly line and labeler, said Mary Chew.

Chew’s family would do some of the production work to avoid added labor costs.

"It would be great if everyone could get together and get a place together and share," Chew said. "If someone’s willing to lead it and could help a lot of smaller companies who don’t have the finances to do that," it would be "taking a tragedy and turning it into a success story."

Gary Hanagami, executive director of the Hawaii Food Industry Association, said, "If you have a small business with a good product, a terrific recipe, but lack investments, it’s a challenge in Hawaii. The cost of manufacturing is steep. … They can’t scale their facilities to do that at a cost that keeps them competitive."

Pacific Poultry closed its production plant in 2006.

"It’s not worth having our own facility," Hancock said. "That’s why people go to a third-party bottler or co-packer, because it doesn’t pencil out to have their own building and warehouse."

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