Deanna Cornelius projects the calm and the kindness you’d expect from a person with a background of feeding children, seniors and the ill, and who runs an operation called The Happy Bento.
But there is fire in Cornelius’ soft voice when she says, “The solution, I think, is staring us in the face. We have to keep the (local) farmers going.”
For now Cornelius is doing her part by restarting a dinner delivery service that makes good use of local produce. It is also a move made out of business necessity; much of The Happy Bento’s work normally comes from school-lunch clients, and schools are closed.
“If this dinner delivery service keeps us afloat, we’ll go back to offering what we call the best school lunch you can get,” Cornelius said. The Happy Bento had five employees she wants to bring back.
Eventually, she said, the coronavirus crisis could produce a silver lining.
She envisions a self-contained Hawaii food chain, a modern version of the shared responsibilities in the tradition of ahupuaa, when islands were subdivided into regions, each including mountains, lowlands and access to the ocean — and, thus, a balance of food for each community.
“If you trade within that system, it can work,” she says. “Oahu could be its own ahupuaa.”
Cornelius’ kitchen is in the Pacific Gateway Center’s Culinary Business Incubator; the name is especially apt now, as the nonprofit center’s mission of birthing and nurturing smaller food operations like Cornelius’ is being put to an extreme test.
Although The Happy Bento is a for-profit business, it fits the Pacific Gateway criteria of a small business, and its clientele includes seniors with special needs.
The facility has several kitchens, which are normally bustling. But on Thursday there wasn’t much activity besides The Happy Bento and Flo’s Kitchen.
“We share this facility and we knew each other,” said Albert Leyendecker, husband of Florence Harding, the aforementioned Flo. “We looked at (collaborating) as the best way to keep going.”
Flo’s Kitchen does lunches and The Happy Bento does dinner, and they help each other accomplish both.
No one knows whether or when Cornelius’ vision could become reality, but small versions of it are happening in many places, including the Gateway Center — which Aloha Harvest has been using as a consolidation and distribution hub for food that would otherwise go to waste. It passes from there to groups that feed the needy.
Cornelius gave Aloha Harvest 100 cartons of milk that had been earmarked for school lunches and would have spoiled. There is a sense of cooperation as she and others try to keep things going, meal by meal, day by day.
Another part of her message is also clear: “Let’s use this terrible time to eat clean. People might adopt new eating habits.”
Cornelius’ background is in nutrition. Like other food providers, The Happy Bento features comfort food at a time when people especially crave comfort, but her menu also prioritizes health. Many of her customers, including some from her previous venture, Salad Envy, have dietary restrictions due to diabetes and other illnesses.
“We have a lot of renal patients, and kupuna with other health concerns,” she said. “They still want to eat what they love, but we can make the meals healthier.”
Teriyaki chicken she and Leyendecker prepared Thursday is boneless and skinless. The fat is trimmed off of the kalbi.
Meals are $15 or $16 each, with discounts for family- style orders; for example, grilled shrimp with bok choi and couscous was $16, but $30 to feed two and $56 to feed four. Meals can be refrigerated for three or four days, or frozen.
“The aim now is to allow no one to go without food,” Cornelius says. And, from her perspective, there’s no reason why that food can’t be nutritious.
Find The Happy Bento in the Pacific Gateway Center, 723-C Umi St., 847-2523, thehappybento.com. Order by 10 p.m. for next-day delivery, which is mostly free on Oahu for a minimum of four meals; 10% discount for pickup.