Nonprofit sets sights on future commercial kitchen | News, Sports, Jobs

Aloha Kettlecorn & Ice Cream’s Pika Fakava prepares an açaí bowl Wednesday at the Maui Street Market on Hana Highway in Kahului. The new food truck hub follows the popular Maui Sunday Market established by the Maui Food Technology Center, a nonprofit that aims to help create opportunities for local entrepreneurs. President Luana Mahi said earlier this week that the nonprofit’s next steps include opening a commercial kitchen. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

LAHAINA — Whether it’s supporting a community of local entrepreneurs, helping a farmer to develop value-added products or creating innovative ways to serve those in need throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Maui Food Technology Center has been seeking ways to expand its roots.

For the next phase of growth, the nonprofit’s president Luana Mahi said Tuesday evening that the center has plans to build a collaborative website and open a commercial kitchen facility for local entrepreneurs to use.

The organization was established in 2004 and has since been on a mission to encourage, educate and create opportunities for local entrepreneurs seeking to earn a living through value-added products, agriculture, cultural practices, environmental sustainability, technology and economic diversification.

“It’s just great to see the growth and potential that comes out, and the ideas that (clients) come up with,” said Mahi during a meeting held at the Royal Lahaina Resort’s Royal Ocean Terrace Restaurant on Tuesday night.

Saying that there is a lack of places for small food manufacturers to house and distribute their goods and products in a commercial kitchen, the center is seeking about $470,000 in funding for a facility located on 671 Piliwale Road in Kula.

Aloha Kettlecorn & Ice Cream food truck cashier Caivin Llanos serves a cup of “fruity shells” to a customer Wednesday afternoon at the Maui Street Market on Hana Highway in Kahului. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Mahi said they are looking to renovate an empty building of the old Maui Pickled Products owned by the Uradomo family and to purchase other necessary materials.

It would be a place for local entrepreneurs to process their goods while having access to energy-efficient commercial food service equipment, as well as access to dry, cold and frozen storage; meeting spaces; a food science lab; and training facilities.

They will find out this month if funding is approved through the Legislature, she said.

The center is also hoping to build a new website and app that would help to establish more partnerships between ranchers and farmers, food manufacturers, wholesale buyers, restaurants, nonprofits and other industry sectors.

Mahi said that the online platform will offer resources, workshops and ideas, encourage locals to support one another, open funding opportunities and gather ideas from the community to make sure “concerns and new ideas can be bridged.”

During a Lahaina Rotary Club meeting on Tuesday night at the Royal Lahaina Resort, Maui Food Technology Center President Luana Mahi announces the nonprofit’s next phase, which includes renovating a building for a commercial kitchen as well as launching an online platform for local entrepreneurs to collaborate and have access to resources. The Maui News / DAKOTA GROSSMAN photo

The nonprofit hosts workshops and education expos year-round, as well as national and international trade shows.

Mahi said that Hawaii is home to about 7,000 farms statewide, 800 on Maui, with the majority considered small operations, meaning most need assistance with “operations, expertise and marketing.”

“One thing I like about our organization is the ability that we have to react quickly to clients’ needs and provide confidential services,” she said.

About 15,000 new value-added products are introduced into the market at a national level every year, except about two in three products fail due to the lack of customer appeal, such as pricing. One in five businesses last more than five years, and entrepreneurs spend an average of two or more years developing their new food products.

Diversified agriculture and locally made products in Hawaii are valued at $2.4 billion, which provides jobs and contributions to the economy. Diversified agriculture generates 70 percent of the state’s farm revenues and agriculture workforce.

“Value-added products offer farmers a greater way to diversify, expand and grow their revenue stream,” she said.

Seeking to highlight locally made goods, the Maui Food Technology Center has launched two food truck venues in Kahului. About 340 entrepreneurs have participated in the center’s weekly Maui Sunday Market, which showcases Maui County vendors, food trucks, farmers and others at the Kahului Shopping Center, generating over $1.8 million in sales over the past three and a half years, she said.

The nonprofit includes individuals from Maui Economic Development Board, Maui County Farm Bureau, Hawaii Small Business Development Center and other economic and agricultural organizations.

“All of these individuals within the community already help entrepreneurs, whether it’s through other programs that these organizations have … so I think we work cooperatively to help our various clients,” said Mahi, also the owner of Hawaiian Isles Unlimited LLC. “Being a part of Maui Food Technology Center has been so much fun.”

Speaking to the Rotary Club of Lahaina Sunset on Tuesday, Mahi also shared how the organization continued to offer virtual webinars and resources during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how collaborators pivoted to ensure that keiki and families in need had meals to eat.

The Maui Sunday Market was one of the only events able to resume, with health and safety protocols, in June 2020 after being shut down for a while due to the pandemic.

“I was bugging the Mayor’s Office pretty regularly because I was feeling sorry for the vendors who relied on this event to make money,” Mahi said.

What started as an effort to feed kupuna, keiki and homeless individuals impacted by the pandemic later turned into the Maui Street Market, the center’s newest food truck hub that launched on Feb. 1 in the parking lot located on 150 Hana Highway.

“All the owners were saying that they ‘don’t have anywhere to park, most of us are parking along the street at the harbor and it’s not safe, dirt blows up into our truck,’ so we started looking for a place,” she said.

As a result, the center launched the Feeding Maui Nui program in partnership with the Maui County Office on Aging to assist qualified kupuna to access food. According to the Office on Aging, a total of 919 participants received 50,559 meals at 34 participating food trucks and vendors across Maui and Molokai from July 2020 through December 2021.

Funding was also received from Maui United Way to sponsor three food trucks to park near schools with the most need.

Following the closures of restaurants and hotels, many partnering farmers and businesses found themselves with extra perishable produce, so places like S&J Bakery Inc. and SunFresh also donated items to fill meals.

“We kind of utilized whatever we could and we were able to feed a bunch of kids,” she said.

To date, the Feeding Maui Nui program has provided over 60,000 meals since April 2020.

The center also worked with the county in supplying about 3,400 value-added products from local farmers to fill Community-Supported Agriculture boxes just before Christmas, she added, which was part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at [email protected]

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