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‘Ai Love Nalo Wants to Feed Us a Week at a Time
Hard-hit by the pandemic, the Windward O‘ahu vegan restaurant kept cooking its best meals, then started delivering them.
When restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms back in March, ‘Ai Love Nalo survived by swiveling to a vegan meal delivery service that features customer favorites alongside new dishes in a menu that changes weekly.
The plan includes the colorful and eclectic Medi Bowl, proclaimed on HONOLULU magazine’s January 2019 cover as one of the “delicious dishes even carnivores will crave.” Other meals include the creamy lū‘au, the BBQ portobello mushroom sandwich and the tofu poke bowl, all familiar favorites. And lesser-known dishes: a no-chicken long rice that hits the comforting texture and taste profile of its meaty cousin with a ginger-miso veggie broth, tofu and edamame; and a creamy Indian-ish korma bowl with potatoes, cauliflower, peas, chickpeas, cashews and ‘olena (turmeric).
‘Ai Love Nalo has a reputation for a rare trifecta: healthy and vegan; rooted in Hawaiian culture and farm-fresh local ingredients; and raved about even by people who eat meat. Since its opening in 2015, the Windward O‘ahu community has buzzed about the unassuming vegan eatery nestled along a Waimānalo stretch dominated by burgers, plate lunches and cheap fast food.
But the pandemic forced the restaurant to swiftly find a new way to do business, says owner Malia Smith. Worried about getting sick, most of the staff quit, leaving Smith and her sister, Lois, doing it all: cooking, plating and delivering meals to people’s homes.
This is just the latest interesting pivot for Smith. The Kamehameha Schools graduate earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in corporate communication and a doctorate in education from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. After she returned home to the Islands, Smith taught at Hawai‘i Pacific University for eight years, serving as both a professor and department head.
Her passion for incorporating Hawaiian culture and sustainability initiatives led her to study the food system in Hawai‘i. That prompted her to create the Hāʻehuola Wellness Program, whose curriculum of nutrition, cooking and Hawaiian culture aimed to help reverse patterns of diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. To give participants consistency and variety, Smith came up with a plant-based meal plan and got grants to subsidize it. One of the early groups was a hālau of 30, whose dancers visited the farm and learned to cook together. Members in the program got two meals a day, six days a week for three months “to help them transition to a healthier lifestyle because a lot of them are addicted to salt, sugar and fat,” Smith says. By swapping savory tofu for canned meat, preparing Hawaiian plates centering on taro and sweet potato lū‘au instead of salty pork, “their palate changes and then they become more sensitive to the sugar, fat and salt so that they can move toward a healthier lifestyle.”
Originally from Nānākuli, Smith has lived in Waimānalo for 10 years. When she opened ‘Ai Love Nalo, she felt the support of the community as the business grew in popularity with a philosophy of “healthier, happier, one taste at a time.” She admits she was discouraged when business dropped by 90% when eat-in service stopped. “We were barely breaking even. We almost shut down multiple times,” she says. But a core group of 30 to 40 people kept ordering meals, encouraging Smith and her sister with news of their improving health, higher energy, lower blood pressure. They spread the word and the business survived.
Customers order a week at a time, 10 meals delivered over five days. The current schedule delivers Thursday through Monday (Tuesday and Wednesday are slowest at the restaurant.) We ordered a week’s worth of meals twice, and we’ll do it again. Our favorites include the lū‘au, tofu poke, and the Medi Bowl brimming with kalo falafel and pink beet hummus. We enjoyed the ‘ulu waffles (the restaurant grows breadfruit on its 20-acre farm), the old-school comfort of baked spaghetti and Da Scrambler, a savory tofu-veggie stir-fry with Indian-ish flair served with brown rice, coconut chips subbing for bacon, avocado and salad. Only one of the three of us at home now is vegetarian and no one is vegan, but we all found favorites. Getting two meals at a time allowed us to split or share, and on days when one selection seemed less interesting—a veggie burger or baked potato—we could mix and match other ingredients into the salad or alongside the main dishes.
Smith plans to close for Thanksgiving week, then switch to weekday delivery. Customers prefer not having to meal prep on weekdays, leaving that for weekends when they’ve got more time. We found we needed to plan to eat the food while it was fresh, which meant ignoring impulse cravings. Some food arrived warm, some chilled; all were plated with sauces and dressings on the side. ‘Ai Love Nalo’s website includes detailed heating and plating tips and tricks.
Making It Work
The base price for one week is $126, plus tax and a delivery fee calculated according to where you live. Order more meals and the price drops a bit. Our Windward delivery added $25, which meant each meal cost about $15. Our meals arrived between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. with a text that announced they were on their way, and another one confirming they’d arrived. We put a cooler next to our front door to make contactless delivery easy and keep the meals chilled and bug-free until we could get to them. Smith says most meals get delivered by 1:30 p.m. and all by 3:30 p.m.
We kept track of what meals we were getting on which days to look forward to our favorites. But we also liked the surprise of discovering things we’d never tried. Da Scrambler lasted for two meals, we loved the Chinese chicken-less salad but wanted more than the seven faux-chicken tofu pieces. The salads were always generous and included shredded carrots, raisins or dried cranberries, tomatoes and fresh greens. Since we’re usually eating at home, it’s easy to toss in some spices or add a side dish to customize. The meals we didn’t eat right away, we stored in covered glass containers to keep fresh until later that day or the next.
We loved the salad dressings—all vegan, tasty and better than store-bought. The standouts included creamy ranch, ginger tahini, thousand island and the Oriental dressing that came with the Chinese chicken-less salad. And vegan chocolate chip cookies showed up one day!
Smith has added an option of pan-size portions of some of the most popular dishes: tofu poke and Oh Wow Laulau were both on the menu recently. Bottled salad dressings and those vegan chocolate chip cookies can also be ordered.
With generous plates of fresh, healthy local food, the ‘Ai Love Nalo meal plans provide a good option, especially in a week where you’ve got school or work deadlines and the COVID numbers make grocery shopping way less appealing. Could we make our own fresh meals for less money? Sure, but would we make 10 of those meals in a week? And, in these months of uncertainty, buying into meal plans, food boxes and other innovative ideas will help support ‘Ai Love Nalo and other local businesses so they might be there for all of us in the future.