Food entrepreneurs on Maui help build economic future
Hawaii is looking seriously at agriculture and value-added agricultural products as a future growth sector for our economy. Entrepreneurs on Maui appear to be taking that challenge to heart, launching new food businesses geared at growing local jobs.
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Hawaii is looking seriously at agriculture and value-added
agricultural products as a
future growth sector for our economy. Entrepreneurs on Maui appear to be taking that challenge to heart, launching new food businesses geared at growing
The Maui Food Innovation Center’s X-celerator program last month graduated its fourth cohort of food entrepreneurs, proving that it can continue to find fertile ground on the Valley Isle. Industry leaders are rallying around their efforts, too.
The president of Maui Wine serves as the center’s chairwoman. Representatives from Whole Foods, King’s Hawaiian and Central Pacific Bank were among the judges critiquing each entrepreneur’s pitch presentation on graduation day. The businesses ranged from a baby food subscription service concept to gluten-free pizza dough.
Here are some of the day’s top highlights:
>> Nutritionist Katy Kenfield and her husband, Oliver, launched Get Real Desserts, which makes healthy — yet tasty — dessert bars that take the regret out of eating sweets. With creative flavors like lemon goji berry and a nutritious take on carrot cake, the 5-month-old business is already selling into coffee shops and catering private parties. Kenfield wants to move into grocery stores and hotels, but needs to work on her packaging to make it more display-shelf friendly.
Still, the judges were impressed with her product, her sales pitch and her use of locally sourced raw materials. She won third place in the pitch judging and will use the $4,000 cash prize in part to hire a local branding and marketing company to help tackle the packaging problem.
“The (accelerator) program was great. It helped me get my numbers in order so that this wouldn’t be just a fun hobby, but a real business,” Kenfield said.
>> Maui native Ashley Stewart paired up with a New York slow-food chef to create Niu Food Co., which manufactures a nondairy, coconut-based cream cheese. The product is made from surplus coconuts, found all over Maui, which are processed into a yogurt, then a cream cheese.
With the demand for dairy-alternative products growing, Stewart’s one-of-a-kind product impressed the judges and was selected as the crowd favorite for “most innovative flavor,” earning her a $500 bonus on top of her $4,500 in runner-up prize money.
Stewart plans to use her prize money to purchase an industrial coconut cream machine that can process older, tougher coconuts, which will help the company lower its costs.
>> The judges’ top pick was hot sauce company HI Spice, run by pepper aficionado Justin Orr. He uses local peppers and does enough sales online and into Maui hotels that he can afford to pay himself a salary — no small feat for a startup.
Orr had used an earlier Kickstarter campaign to hire a design team to give his product a handsome shelf-ready look, a fact that impressed the judges and earned him the $5,000 top prize. Orr also won a bonus prize of regular mentoring with four top executives across King’s Hawaiian’s operations.
“The program was an invaluable experience which connected us with amazing local businesses and professionals on Maui and throughout Hawaii,” Orr said. “The network of people involved to help small businesses succeed is truly astounding and humbling.”
Hawaii Strategic Development Corp. sponsored the cash prizes, which are meant to help the entrepreneurs take their businesses to the next level.
With the support of accelerator programs and seed money, these entrepreneurs are poised to leverage both the Hawaii and Maui brands to make up a new cluster of innovative small businesses adding to our local economies. They’re creating products made in Hawaii, for the world. It’s what we do best.
Sara Lin, formerly a journalist in New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu, is now associate with the Hawaii Strategic Development Corp. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.