Tis’ the season to buy local. Campaigns encouraging holiday shoppers to support local businesses are in high gear. But for one of Hawai’i’s few remaining locally-owned grocery chains “buy local” is a year-round effort, and has been for nearly three decades. What started out as a strategy to help the local workforce transition after sugar plantations started shutting down has now become one of the most successful buy local campaigns in the islands. HPR reporter Ku’uwehi Hiraishi has this story.
The last remaining sugar plantations on the big Island closed in the early 90s. Unemployment skyrocketed and former planation workers were in flux. The family-owned KTA Super Stores, whose customer base was largely plantation workers, decided to help the economic transformation and preserve the island’s agricultural roots.
They created a private label for locally grown, produced or manufactured products and called it the Mountain Apple Brand. The first product, island fresh milk, was introduced in 1992. Today, everything from eggs to beef to fish, fruits and vegetables can be found under the label.
“It's a special brand that you want people to want it, and they are willing to pay more for it,” says Derek Kurisu, Executive Vice President of KTA Super Stores.
Kurisu leads KTA’s Mountain Apple Brand efforts – sourcing and recruiting local suppliers. Today, he is meeting with Troy Keolanui who operates OK Farms in Hilo.
“Now you know he has a Hilo coffee and I'm very interested in that, you know?” says Kurisu, “I have coffee from Kaʻū, I have coffee from Keaʻau, and now I have Hilo coffee.”
Keolanui and his wife ‘Ala run a thousand-acre farm where they grow a variety of crops like macadamia nuts, tropical fruit trees, heart of palm and now coffee.
“Hilo coffee has been a long journey for us,” says Keolanui, "We've been growing it now for eight years, and so you know people told us you're crazy, don't grow coffee in Hilo dirt, its gonna taste funny.”
But the risk is paying off. The coffee earned statewide honors at the Hawaii Coffee Association cupping competition. Its stories like these that Kurisu enjoys.
“It’s not only a matter of sitting down and working out with them. But its also getting to learn what its all about,” says Kurisu.
Keolanui already sells some of his farm bounty under the Mountain Apple Brand, but Kurisu’s interest in his newest crop helps validate his continued effort.
“The Hilo coffee has a future. We believe in it,” says Keolanui, “We're planting more fields. We're at 7 acres now but we have a plan to put in 10 more acres. So we're committeed.”
The Mountain Apple Brand turns 25 years old this year. When Kurisu started working as a bag boy at KTA, an estimated 15 percent of the produce was locally grown. Today, its 95 percent. His roster of Mountain Apple Brand products has grown to more than 80 local vendors supplying more than 200 products.
“Well you know, thereʻs a big shift. Now, I am so glad everybody is on the bandwagon . Everybody is trying to support local,” says Kurisu.