How Pop-Up Mākeke Went From an Idea to an Online Hot Spot for Hawai‘i Businesses
The virtual marketplace for local small businesses and artisans grossed about $250,000 and sold nearly 8,000 items in just a month and a half. It runs through the end of May.
Photos: Courtesy of Pop-Up Mākeke
When Kūhiō Lewis and his staff at the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement took on the ambitious task of launching an online marketplace, they didn’t realize how much work it would take. And the clock was ticking.
In March, the Merrie Monarch Festival and other major events were canceled because of COVID-19. Lewis and his staff knew that many small-business owners and artisans, particularly Native Hawaiians, heavily relied on those events to make a living—some make 80% of their yearly income during Merrie Monarch week alone. As a leader, he felt they needed to do something to help the community.
In April, Lewis, CNHA’s president and CEO, and his team launched Pop-Up Mākeke, an online shopping website that features more than 100 Hawai‘i small businesses, artisans and vendors selling everything from handmade jewelry and clothing to games and art. (Mākeke means market in Hawaiian.) Initially planned to run through April, CNHA extended it to the end of this month.
Since its launch, the marketplace has grossed about $250,000 in sales. Nearly 8,000 items have been sold, and the online store has around 100,000 hits. And it’s not just people from Hawai‘i who are buying—more than one-third of the orders come from the Mainland. Internationally, people from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, China, South Korea and other countries are hitting up the pop-up, too.
“At first I wasn’t immediately on board because I wasn’t too sure of the reaction we’d get [to the pop-up]. It was right in the beginning when the stay-at-home order started and a lot of people were getting furloughed,” says Lokahi Orian, Ha‘aheo Hawaiian Crafts co-owner, who sells lau hala and Ni‘ihau shell jewelry at Merrie Monarch. “But I thought, I have to be creative this year in how I made money. I decided, why not? Within the first couple of days, all of our products sold out. It was a success.”
But Pop-Up Mākeke was unlike any other project that the nonprofit had ever taken on. Formed in 2001, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement advocates for Hawaiians and helps connect them to their culture and resources through events and other projects. Pre-COVID-19, the council held pop-ups at some of the events and at conferences to support Native Hawaiian-owned small businesses, but never online.
After CNHA’s programs were canceled in response to COVID-19, the team dropped everything to work on the pop-up. Lewis remembers pulling 15-hour days during those first two weeks, often leaving the office around midnight.
Lewis and his team had to create a business plan and forge partnerships to cover all of the operating costs. They had to learn to build a website from the ground up. They put a call out to vendors to sign up for the marketplace and sifted through 165 applications. To market the pop-up, they planned weekly QVC-style livestreams hosted by local entertainers and musicians, an opportunity to help another group that was out of work.
“We knew at the end of the day that we had to come up with something,” Lewis says. “We’re throwing skin in this game big time. It was all hands on deck. It’s a huge community effort.”
Shannon Scott and Mele Apana hosted the first Two Pop-Up Mākeke livestream shows in April.
Once vendors began dropping off their products at CNHA’s office in Kapolei, every single item had to be cataloged, inventoried and uploaded to the website with a picture. Some vendors who had never sold anything online before didn’t have any photos, so CNHA staff took pictures for them. The process to upload just one item took about 30 minutes (times that by about 8,000 items sold so far). Then they had to package all of the orders—more than 3,300—and drop them off at the post office.
The pop-up is also highly subsidized by donations and sponsorships. Although vendors are charged a 20% commission fee to sell their products on the pop-up, that doesn’t cover all of the operating expenses, Lewis says. Ka Makana Ali‘i offered one of its vacant spaces to use for free as a distribution site after CNHA’s office became so cramped that people were “literally walking through clothes racks to get to our desks,” Lewis says. Hawaiian Airlines helps pay for the shipping and sends a team of employees every Thursday and Friday to assist with packaging orders. Avis loaned a few of its vans for free so staff could drive the thousands of packages to the post office. The Hawai‘i Tourism Authority helps produce commercials. And ‘Ōiwi TV and Hawai‘i News Now produce and film the livestreams. The list goes on.
CNHA staff and Hawaiian Airlines workers package and ship the thousands of online orders.
That meant everyone on the CNHA staff pitched in and took on different roles, too. With a background in web design and social media, Kawena Lei Carvalho-Mattos, CNHA’s special projects manager, is now tasked with planning the weekly shows, livestreamed on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on Facebook. Shows are about 30 minutes to an hour long.
Carvalho-Mattos puts together a rundown of each show and calls the hosts on Zoom to talk about the scripts, which are mapped out to the second. She checks that there’s enough inventory for the products they’ve selected and contacts the vendors to find out what they’d like to share. She creates talking points for the hosts and does a full walk-through of the entire show a few days in advance. They also meet right before the livestream to go over everything one more time.
Natalie Ai Kamauu (second from left) and Hālau Hula ‘O Hokulani’s kumu hula, Leonani Nāho‘oikaika (second from right), were some of the guests featured on the Merrie Monarch week show.
If you’ve ever tuned in to the livestreams, you’ve probably recognized a lot of familiar faces: Mele Apana, Shannon Scott, Mana‘ola Yap, Kini Zamora and Kumu Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu. Natalie Ai Kamauu and Hālau Hula ‘O Hokulani’s kumu hula, Leonani Nāho‘oikaika, were featured on the Merrie Monarch week show. And on another episode, Josh Tatofi serenaded us with songs about everything from a game to li hing mui mango.
“I’m following in the footsteps of my kūpuna—how can we make the best out of this situation?” Carvalho-Mattos says. “The sponsors have been great, but our vendors are the bread and butter to make this work. One of our [vendors] has a preexisting condition. [Pop-Up Mākeke] allows him to profit during this time when he can’t leave the house. It’s allowed him to still run his business. We have many stories like this.”
Lewis agrees that the vendors are the driving force behind the marketplace. He’s seen many of them grow and develop through this experience, with some even starting their own websites.
Tiare Ka‘ōlelopono, owner of All Things Maoli, which specializes in Native Hawaiian jewelry and apparel, has sold about 300 of the 500 items she’s put on the pop-up. This was supposed to be the first year she’d have a booth at the Grand Naniloa Hotel craft fair during Merrie Monarch week—she had made custom items just for the festival. But with its cancellation, CNHA’s Pop-Up Mākeke has been “a huge blessing,” she says.
“It took me a year to build my online store. I was really nervous for them at first because I know how much work it takes,” Ka‘ōlelopono says. “I appreciate the way they rallied community around community. It really helped save people’s lives and businesses. I think that’s a huge testament to the way Hawai‘i can operate during COVID-19.”