Farm to Café: The Evolution of Honolulu Coffee Co.

How Honolulu Coffee Co. came to be.
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Photo: Ambika Castle


For a quick lesson on the recent history of café culture in the United States, look to Honolulu Coffee Co. In 1991, Ray Suiter, with the help of his father, Ray Suiter Sr., opened the first Honolulu Coffee Co. at the Dillingham Transportation Building downtown. Or, rather, it was Café Vienna back then, inspired by Ray Sr. and his wife Jeanne’s travels throughout Europe. They had grown up on vacuum-packed coffee from Maxwell House, but, when they toured Europe as missionaries and experienced the cafés there, they fell hard. “The coffee-drinking experience in Europe is something that you relish and enjoy,” says Ray Sr.

“I’m not impressed with the politics of Europe, but I do like that focus on socializing over food and coffee.”

Ray Jr., having been dragged along, shared their obsession, and so they opened Café Vienna, complete with string-quartet performances on some nights.


Ray Sr. refuses to believe Starbucks has any redeeming qualities (“I can’t even imagine someone enjoying a cup of Starbucks coffee. I think it’s just dreadful,” and, “The worst thing that ever happened to the name cappuccino is Starbucks.”). And yet, Café Vienna shared the same values as Starbucks in the beginning: to bring the European café culture to America.


Eventually, the Suiters renamed Café Vienna to Honolulu Coffee Co., after realizing “people in Hawai‘i and tourists don’t want to drink Viennese coffee,” says Jeanne. And Honolulu Coffee Co. grew. It grew so much that Ray Jr. sold it in 2008, tired of running so many retail stores. He just wanted to roast coffee. Which is what he does with his new business, Kona Coffee Purveyors—which contract-roasts for other companies (including Honolulu Coffee Co. at the moment) and sells direct over the Internet. (His younger brother, Sam Suiter, who grew up working in Honolulu Coffee Co., loves retail, and recently opened his own café.)


Former investment banker Ed Schultz, along with other partners involved in cafés and roasters in Kansas City, bought Honolulu Coffee Co. to “be part of the industry from farm to cup,” Schultz says. “Hawai‘i is the only place you could do that.” In that sense, he aligns Honolulu Coffee Co. with the “third wave” of coffee shops (the first being diner coffee and the second, Starbucks). He realized that great coffee needs to start with great beans. He plans on opening a “coffee experience center” in the old Hard Rock location, where he’s building roasting facilities and will offer tours, all geared toward telling the story of Hawai‘i coffee.


Honolulu Coffee Co. also recently purchased a 30-acre farm in Kona. It’s not big enough to supply all of the cafés—especially not with the company’s plans to open 40 cafés in Japan by 2016. Rather, it functions as a lab to experiment with everything from pruning to drying methods, so Honolulu Coffee Co. can tell the farmers they source from—whether in Kona or Guatemala—how they might grow coffee better. All for a better cup of coffee.


Read More Stories by Martha Cheng