Did You Know Vaccines Are Being Developed in Hawai‘i? The Story Behind That and 5 Other Things Made, Grown and Designed in the Islands
We’re more than ‘ukulele, mac nuts and Kona coffee, although we love all three. Here’s a look at a few unusual industries making waves in the Islands, as well as some decades-old companies that are still committed to handcrafting in Hawai‘i.
As small as 3 millimeters across, seed clams and oysters pull their weight and more. In the 2017 Census of Agriculture, Hawai‘i’s mollusks were the only aquaculture product that increased both in sales value (from $6.2 million to $7.3 million) and in number of farms (more than doubling from four to 10) over the past five years.
With more acidic ocean water killing off oyster larvae along in Pacific Northwest, big seafood producers’ hatcheries on the Big Island have gained importance. Many breed the tiny mollusks for about a month before sending larvae (which are a microscopic 0.3 millimeters at that point) to mature in the phytoplankton-rich waters of their own farms on the Mainland. Today, Hawaiian Shellfish not only supplies its parent company, the Washington-based Goose Point Oysters, with billions of the babies every year (sent simply in coolers, by the way) but grows others a few more weeks to the larger seed size to sell to other companies.
With 11 employees in 2019—seven who were UH Hilo students and graduates, hatchery manager and former UH Hilo employee Brian Koval proudly points out—the team raises Pacific and Kumamoto oysters and Manila clams in a 20,000-square-foot, largely solar-panel-run facility in Kea‘au.
They send the young mollusks to 30 West Coast farms and, in the past few years, have also supplied the starters to new oyster farms on Kaua‘i and Moloka‘i. “We try to take care of the little guys,” Koval says. “[Goose Point founder] Dave [Nisbet] was a small-business man; he was selling oysters out of the back of his station wagon with his daughter in a crib in the back. So we like small businesses, we like supporting the local community, we like employing people here.”
Nisbet also sponsored research at UH Hilo’s Pacific Aquaculture & Coastal Resource Center to see if oysters could grow in well water—a successful pilot project Koval worked on when he was at UH that eventually led to Goose Point’s facility. Now, Hawaiian Shellfish works to help expand the industry by teaching aquaculture in one of UH’s workforce training programs. In fact, a new Hilo Aquaculture Cooperative plans to set up an oyster farm, for the first time, in Hilo Bay.
The top export out of the state isn’t water (No. 2 but shrinking), macadamia nuts (No. 4) or even algae (No. 18). It’s shrimp—but not the Kaua‘i or North Shore varieties we order at food trucks and in local restaurants. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, broodstock shrimp is a $19 million-a-year business here. The shrimp are raised here then shipped to farms around the world for breeding. Why Hawai‘i? When diseases were killing the crustaceans in droves on the U.S. Mainland and in Asia, local producers found they were able to raise specific pathogen-free breeds (now called SPF) that live longer and thrive because those diseases just don’t exist here. The state started certifying farms in the 1980s. It’s not a simple process. Producers must test their Pacific White and Pacific Blue shrimp and giant tiger prawns every six months for two years before the farm can be officially dubbed SPF.
Because Hawai‘i’s breedable shrimp are sent everywhere from Taiwan and Mexico to Iran, there is a good chance that much of the 1.1 tons of shrimp imported to the U.S. for eating are genetically related to those raised here. So why are most of our shellfish sold for broodstock instead of our dinner tables? “A single [breeding] shrimp may be sold for $50,” says Dr. Lei Yamasaki, the veterinary medical officer with the state Department of Agriculture’s Animal Disease Control Branch, which oversees the SPF program. “In comparison, commodity shrimp can be purchased for $15 a pound.”
Exports of essential oils are on the rise in hawai‘i, increasing 139% from 2016 to 2017, just ahead of big growth in plants for pharmacy and perfume use.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce
Adam Funari of Martin & MacArthur
Staying in the Islands is essential when working with acacia koa. “It just doesn’t make financial sense to send raw lumber—koa—from the Big Island to some foreign country like Indonesia or Brazil, or Europe, to make furniture and send it back to Hawai‘i,” says Martin & MacArthur President and CEO Michael Tam. But that doesn’t mean keeping the company viable has been easy.
Woodworker Jon Martin started Martin & MacArthur in 1961. For 47 years, the local business focused on its signature koa furniture. But, when, like everything else, the industry started moving manufacturing outside of the U.S. and prices fell, Martin & MacArthur had to figure out how to stay afloat. The answer was scrap wood. When Martin retired and Michael Tam took over leadership in 2008, the company’s 14 craftsmen were doing what they had done for decades: discarding or donating the shorts—koa pieces measuring 4 feet or less that are too small for furniture. He decided to turn those into other home furnishings including picture frames, clocks and jewelry. All went into Martin & MacArthur stores and showrooms, which swelled from two to 15 in the past 11 years. (No. 16, in the Royal Hawaiian hotel, is scheduled to open this month.)
The number of woodworkers also doubled. Now more than 30 full-time employees create as many as 20,000 items a year in a Kalihi workshop. Since a critical part of the company’s future is finding and training new craftsmen, it has started an apprentice program for people with a passion for working with their hands. It’s a commitment—it takes 10 years to become a journeyman. “How many people who are 18 years old are willing to do that?” Tam says. “But there’s a sense of pride and distinction with craftsmanship like that because you’re making something just incredible from start to finish with Hawai‘i’s woods and there’s definitely an honor in doing that.
“That’s their pride and joy.”
The Labeling Law
You’ve likely seen several versions of neatly engineered phrases on plumeria- and hula-girl-adorned packages or in ads: “Envisioned in Hawai‘i,” “Made with Aloha,” “Inspired by Hawai‘i.” None of these necessarily mean that the item is made or designed here. The only state-sanctioned phrase enforceable by law about any product created here is the one that reads simply, “Made in Hawai‘i.” Since 1989, the state Department of Agriculture has required that products sold here have 51% of their value added through manufacturing, assembly or production in the Islands. So, jewelry makers who import all materials here can use the term “Made in Hawai‘i” as long as they design and create the complete piece at a local street address.
At first, lawmakers in 1988 requested just 25% of value be added here, then some tried to increase it to 100%, which was deemed too stringent. Hawai‘i Revised Statutes 486-119 has remained at 51% since. The same protection was later extended to the phrases “Produced in Hawai‘i” and “Processed in Hawai‘i.”
Misrepresentation can cost violators as much as $2,000 a day in fines.
There was a time in the ’50s when it seemed every family sewing shop in Hawai‘i was making aloha shirts. In the decades since, however, worldwide competition for customers, the decline in department stores and the increasing cost of manufacturing forced even legacy aloha shirt companies to export operations, sell the business or shut down all together. Some have adapted to stay local.
Alx Kawakami and wife Sarah (above) moved back from the Mainland in 2016 to join the company his grandparents founded.
Edith and Keiji Kawakami started ‘Iolani Sportswear in 1953 in a Beretania Street building with dirt floors. At its peak, the company had four factories and employed about 200 people to design, sew and sell. Recently, ‘Iolani started shrinking its in-house manufacturing division and closed it earlier this year. Instead of sending the work overseas, like many other clothing lines, their son Lloyd contracted the jobs to local seamstresses and finishers, some of them former employees. In 2010, a new showroom on Kona Street became the first ‘Iolani store in the brand’s 57-year history.
“It meant a lot that it was made in Hawai‘i and we wanted to keep it here as much as possible,” says Alx Kawakami, Lloyd’s son. “Our retail store [allows us] to sell straight to customers and that helps, but even then it’s still very difficult, and I give credit to our team” who coordinate with contractors to sew and finish every piece.
Alx and his wife, Sarah, are now leading the company, with infant son, Alika, often playing and napping in the office. Sarah, a professional hula dancer, has introduced more modern cuts and graphics and ‘Iolani’s popular Kamalei line, which features wrinkle-free dresses designed to flow with dancers. “[Alx and Sarah] bring a whole new energy and way of thinking,” Lloyd says.
Another new phase is next door; Lloyd transformed the manufacturing space into a retail center for other local businesses. Visitors who stop for tours at KoAloha ‘Ukulele often then head across the inviting courtyard afterward to pick up a treat at Purvé Donut Stop and crispy beef jerky at Snack Addicted, and to browse the women’s, men’s and newly launched kids lines at ‘Iolani. “It’s really cool to see because we used to be alone up here,” Alx says, laughing. “It’s bringing all the businesses together and they’re all good people, too.”
Reyn Spooner artists Vivan Flores (sitting) and Carole Amrhein.
When they receive a concept for a Reyn Spooner design, artists Vivian Flores and Carole Amrhein pull inspiration from plants and animals and research each idea. They draw and paint on paper and computer to turn art into the fabric of our daily lives: aloha shirts, bags and more.
Since the 1960s, aloha shirt manufacturer Reyn Spooner has been an Island fashion icon. The local company was acquired by a Mainland group in 2008, and recently it split its headquarters between Honolulu (44 employees) and Los Angeles (19). But the design division is still rooted in downtown Honolulu. That’s where Flores and Amrhein, two artists who have helped shape that brand for more than 40 years, are based.
Creative director Doug Burkman, sporting a vintage Reyn Spooner-Alfred Shaheen shirt, estimates the company produces 100 designs a year. For Flores, a favorite is a detailed Kona coffee shirt; for Amrhein, it’s a design called Spacefish, which she wore to meet us.
Burkman beams as he describes working with the two. “Without them, I don’t know what Reyn Spooner would look like,” he says. Flores nods: “It’s from the heart.” Amrhein adds: “We put a lot of thought into it.”
Other cities are screaming for our ice cream. Hawai‘i exported $2,770,518 worth of the frozen treat in 2017, making it 14th on the list of top state exports.
Josh Feldman grew up in the clothing business. His family’s company, Tori Richard, started in 1956 with a line of splashy women’s resortwear. By the 1960s, his father, Mort Feldman, who had retired as an apparel manufacturer in Chicago; Mort’s wife, Janice; and pattern maker Mitsue Aka had 200 employees making the clothes and selling them through showrooms in major cities including Dallas, Los Angeles and New York.
The next 50 years brought changes: Tori Richard stores closed in the ’70s, womenswear disappeared in the ’80s and the company almost filed for bankruptcy. In the ’90s, the company’s Hawai‘i sewing facility, with 120 employees, shut down. But under Josh Feldman, Tori Richard now employs 160 people in Honolulu (with an additional 10 Mainland salespeople) and works with local contractors to make hundreds of thousands of pieces here every year. While some items have always been made overseas, Feldman says as much as 80% of its once-again popular womenswear is sewn in the Islands, 50% of men’s shirts and 90% of the new children’s collection. And unlike other Hawai‘i companies that have had to send work offshore, he says keeping most of the production here actually saves money in the long run.
“The reason is we own our own raw materials,” Feldman says. “If you own the raw material, it’s usable for more than one thing. So, when we have the fabric here, I can make other styles with it, I can balance my scales. Conversely, if I make a product offshore, I have to cut the entire production fabric all at one time. I am anticipating the styles, the particular sizes … how do I know which ones will sell?”
Tori Richard also acquired Kāhala, the alohawear company that dates back to 1936. But the bulk of employees have shifted from the manufacturing side (sewers, cutters, etc.) to designers, sales and merchandising teams for 11 Tori Richard shops, all based in the Islands.
“The brands depend on the lifestyle that exists here,” Feldman says. “You can’t be authentic, you’re not an authentic lifestyle brand, if the creative process doesn’t occur in the place where you are doing it.”
Hawai‘i Biotech and University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine
As a new coronavirus began shutting down cities across the world, a seasoned team of medical experts were working on developing a vaccine at Hawai‘i Biotech and UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. The two have been tied together since a group of UH professors started Hawai‘i Biotech in ‘Aiea in 1983. Now, about 20 employees—from molecular biologists to manufacturing professionals—partner with JABSOM to develop vaccines.
In 2019, a vaccine for Ebola was in the forefront as thousands of people contracted it in Congo and Uganda. UH assistant professor Axel Lehrer is working on the COVID-19 vaccine and has worked on the Ebola vaccine since he was a Hawai‘i Biotech employee in 2002. Unlike other versions, the one Lehrer is developing can be stored for months at 40 degrees Celsius (which is 104 degrees Farhenheit)—a plus in tropical countries. Lehrer says although the extra time it takes to get vaccine candidates from the Islands to clinical trial facilities only available on the Mainland can be a challenge, there are benefits. “We’re uniquely positioned to help a country like Liberia where the resources are an issue, because we understand what the limitations are,” he says.
Hawai‘i Biotech is working on six active projects, including an antitoxin for anthrax and a vaccine for West Nile virus. Director of Vaccine Research David Clements says publishing recent research has helped the Honolulu-based company gain respect nationally. “Somebody came up to us after they were allowed to see everything that we do and the comment was, ‘I am really surprised by how much good work you do out there in the Pacific,’” he recalls. “The data speaks for itself. Bottom line is … we have to do good work, generate good data and it will always win the day.”
Rudy Bantolina in the Island Slipper workshop.
Island Slipper prides itself on being a small family business that makes “the best slipper in Hawai‘i.” It’s also the last slipper being made in Hawai‘i. “We are handmade, authentic and have 70 years of making slippers in the Islands,” says company vice president Matt Carpenter.
The 17,438-square-foot Pearl City factory hums with activity as footwear of all shapes, sizes, heights and hues are stamped, sewn, trimmed, strapped and patted into place. Workers make an average of 100,000 pairs annually—roughly 2,000 each week.
In 1946, the company got its start making slipper soles from old tires in Kaka‘ako. The Motonaga and Baba families eventually split the business, with the Motonagas converting from rubber slippers to premium products. In the ’60s, Island Slipper popularized a wooden clog heel and later brought in bright tropical colors and tapa prints. In 1985, John Carpenter bought the company. Now, son Matt and his wife, Tersha, the chief financial officer, run the business, with leather styles and customizable designs. Their website boasts more than 500 reviews, mostly customers raving about the long-lasting comfort and handmade quality.
The Carpenters credit their slipper-wearing staff for much of the success. About 20 to 30 people work seasonal shifts in retail stores in Ala Moana and Royal Hawaiian centers, with another 40 to 60 in manufacturing.
About half the slippers are sold in Hawai‘i with the other half through Mainland and Japan retailers. The goal, says Matt, is “to remain a part of the community, to employ local people and make our product here.”
Grounds for Improvement
Local coffee growers have a bean to pick with the state. Right now, state law specifies that any coffee labeled as from Hawai‘i must list the specific area where the beans originated. But, with as little as 10% of the grounds or beans from that region, the package can claim Island roots. Some coffee farmers have been arguing against that since the rules went into effect in 1991. Bills to change it have failed for years.
This spring, several groups including the Kona Coffee Farmers Association tried to raise that minimum from 10% to 51%. House Bill 1886 would have also required that coffee packages list every single place where the beans came from, in order of percentage. It died in the House in February. Last year, the labeling stipulations were stripped out by the Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, to the relief of other coffee producers, including the Hawai‘i Coffee Association, which says that increasing the amount of locally grown beans in each package would push prices past what consumers and retail customers are willing to pay.
Then, the 2019 bill was completely rephrased to merely create a task force to study the potential effects of a labeling law change. Even that eventually went nowhere.
We’re certain you can stand by for another round of the local-coffee-labeling battle in the 2021 legislative session.
Top 5 Hawai‘i Exports in 2017
Broodstock shrimp: $19,029,555
Bottled water: $15,896,227
Chocolate & chocolate products: $13,875,828
Macadamia nuts: $11,976,401
Coffee and tea: $11,473,365
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce