John and Gwen Henry bought the old Hokama’s building in Wailuku in 2005 hoping to use it as a photography studio. It never took off, so they rented the space to various tenants. After the last tenants left abruptly, their real estate agent suggested opening either a hair salon or coffee shop.
Two weeks later, in January 2015, Maui Coffee Attic opened.
The gamble has paid off, and five years later the cafe has become an essential gathering spot and intimate entertainment space that’s hosted theater seminars, Bitcoin meetings, a dental association and regular ukulele and hula groups, as well as out-of-town performers.
As the Henrys’ business enters its sixth year this month, the stage was booked through March. John Henry said musicians appreciate how they even provide a “green room” in the back.
“They appreciate that it’s a listening environment, not a bar scene,” Henry said.
Maui Coffee Attic also has a full kitchen, offering breakfast, pastries and lunch as well as coffee and tea from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and during evening events. The ube haupia scone is the most popular item. Maui Oma roasters in Kahului supplies the coffee. Yoshi Morinage, a Baldwin High graduate who studied on-island and at prestigious culinary schools in Tokyo, was a classmate of their daughter’s and helped design the menu.
“People who visit come from across the island,” Gwen Henry said. “They say they want to have a non- Starbucks and noncorporate experience.”
With help from friends
On a recent day John Henry wore a baseball cap and took calls from bands looking to book a show in the lower room, which has a stage. Gwen, who oversees the accounts, staffing and kitchen, was dressed in a black T-shirt with white guitar emblems lined in a row above the words “Choose Your Weapon.”
The coffee shop is furnished with shelves of used books and secondhand plush chairs and couches. Three red lava lamps sat atop an old upright piano, and an electric guitar in the shape of Maui was posed on the stage.
The Waikapu couple, now in their 60s, met in the late 1980s at Maui Quick Photo, a camera store owned by Gwen’s uncle. John was a photographer; Gwen was taking photos of houses. They married in 1992 and had two children, now 25 and 27.
John said his wife helped him get his act together and get his business to really take off.
“He’s a master,” she said.
For most of the 90s, John Henry was known as a photographer for celebrity weddings. His clients included hip-hop mogul Dr. Dre and Slash, lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses.
“I was a big fish in a small pond,” he said.
Business began to decline after Sept. 11, 2001, when in one year alone 300 Japanese weddings — the center of their business — were canceled. It diminished again with the dot.com bust and 2008 recession.
When the Henrys decided to open Maui Coffee Attic in 2005, they had no restaurant experience and only $1,500 to spend. But many in the community and some of their first customers helped. Much of the eclectic decor and kitchen supplies was donated by friends and community members from moves, divorces and renovations.
“They gave us cups and spoons and tables, and even the microwave oven,” Gwen said.
Kumu hula, Hoku-winning Hawaiian musician and KPOA radio host Napua Greig — an early customer — even held a fundraiser to improve the sound system and air conditioning. Onetime employee Earl South of the band Soul Kitchen helped the Henrys devise an online ticketing system for shows at the Coffee Attic.
When a pink, plastic guitar was donated and a man came in early one morning, drunk, and began to pick beautiful blues riffs, customers encouraged the Henrys to place the instruments that now adorn the walls so anyone can drop in and play. The instruments, too, have been donated by musicians grateful for this unique space.
“Both of us were working long hours, and getting past that first year was the first hurdle,” John Henry said. “Once we got past the first three years, we realized we are probably going to make it.”
Fostering cafe culture
When the Henrys decided to buy the old Hokama Music & Color TV building, home to a cherished longtime business, “locals laughed at him” because of the building’s distinctive slanted roof, Gwen said. They kept the roof design and the Hokama name outside, something Maui old-timers cheered.
But the Maui Coffee Attic isn’t all about nostalgia; the owners also find inspiration in new trends. Gwen travels to Japan, Korea and other spots, studying Asian cafe and coffee shop culture. She said she’s been inspired by the creativity exhibited at such establishments as a cafe designed as a black-and-white coloring book and one featuring meercats.
Most important, she watches how these places value customers.
“I really appreciated how each customer was treated well and always greeted when they came in and acknowledged when they left,” she said.
Both she and John work to encourage the staff to offer this same kind of service. Gwen runs frequent team-building activities, and many of their staff have stayed on for years.
“Most customers think they’re all our kids,” laughed John.
“Customers also often build friendships,” Gwen added.
John Henry was a chaplain for many years at the Maui Community Correctional Center, just a few blocks away. They keep a space in the back with clothes for any ex-inmates who might need the support.
“We try to be a consoling place,” he said. “We try to be kind and nice to everybody. We just don’t know what they’re going through.”