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Reviving history: Papaaloa store reopens

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    The interior view of the Papaaloa Country Store and Cafe in Papaaloa
  • the building itself is not.ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Customers order lunch at the Papaaloa Country Store and Cafe in Papaaloa
  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
    Customers order lunch at the Papaaloa Country Store and Cafe in Papaaloa
  • Hawaii.
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HILO >> Heading into Papaaloa from Hilo on Route 19, the only hint that there is anything new at Mile 24 is a discreet sign set low to the ground, featuring an orange-toned drawing of a building, and indicating the driver should take the next right turn.

On making the turn and driving a short way over a bridge and past the Papaaloa Hongwanji Mission, the visitor is greeted by the real-life version of that building: the Papaaloa Country Store and Cafe.

People bustle up the steps and to the counter of the back kitchen, where they order pork and eggplant plate lunches, debate which pastry to get, jokingly greet the head chef and store co-owner, Galahad Blyth, as Sir Galahad, and fill up cups of Papaaloa Joe, the coffee grown right down the road. They pick up ice cream and orange juice, and browse the shelves of the general store area. One woman says she drives from Kohala just to come here.

Not too bad for a business that’s only been open since mid-June.

Even though the Papaaloa Country Store and Cafe is new, the building itself is not. It’s a holdover from the plantation era, part of a hub that once included a bank and a sugar mill, and is old enough to predate its own county records. Those begin in 1934, but during the restoration process, people found receipts in the basement from 1910.

The building had always served as a general store, up until 9 years ago, when the previous owners put it up for sale and closed the business.

So when the store’s new owners — Blyth is joined by his brother and his sister-in-law, Sol and Kristina Ammon — first began restoring the historic space two and a half years ago, they were intent on preserving more than just its structure.

"It’s also cultural preservation," said Kristina Ammon. "To know what this was, it’s important people feel like they’re included." (Her parents own the building itself; Blyth and the Ammons own the business.)

They got a sense for how much the establishment meant to the community during the renovation process, as they navigated the county permit system while cleaning floors, painting walls, putting in a commercial kitchen, and upgrading the electric system. They debated keeping an old butcher track on the ceiling, to give a sense for the old store (the rusty equipment ultimately came down), and added a long wheelchair ramp to the front of the store, which blends seamlessly into the overall façade of the building.

All the while, people stopped by to ask when they would be opening. There was no grand announcement for when it would happen, but that didn’t matter. Thanks to word of mouth, Sol Ammon recalled, "We got really flooded the first day."

"People have come in who are in their 80s who used to come in as kids," he said. Three previous owners have stopped by. One woman came in to tell the staff how glad she was that she could come get snacks for her daughter on the way to sports practice — just like she’d done with her own mother.

And one Papaaloa resident returned to her old role: Alvira Cacabelos worked at the store in its old incarnation, before it closed in 2006, doing just about everything, from cooking to ringing people up. Now she is back in the kitchen.

"I’m happy to be back," Cacabelos said. "This place is spiritual; there’s plenty of history."

There are nine staffers, including baker Claire Gehweiler, known to many in Hilo for her old business, E-Claire’s Bakery. Gehweiler prepares everything from hoagie rolls to cakes to cream puffs.

The team sees the entire project as fitting in with the greater revival of the Hamakua coast, as small-scale farming moves in where plantation monoculture once dominated.

They have an organic farm of their own, and intend for the farm’s products to "feed the store" within the next couple of years.

But they also want to support producers in the area, to offer as much locally grown food as possible while helping the community grow and thrive. They will begin accepting Electronic Benefit Transfers in the next month, and are working with the public charter school to offer internships. Musicians come by twice a week to play.

With the main area up and running, the next step is to finish preparations on a dining room area, where people will be able to have ocean views while they eat. It’s a step-by-step process, said Sol Ammon.

"We’re really just getting started," he said.

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