Kōkua Market Faces a One-Week Deadline
Will Honolulu’s only natural foods cooperative be given the chance to reinvent itself?
Photo: Martha Cheng
At the moment, Kōkua Market is still open, but it’s in survival mode, with bare shelves and only its most popular items in stock, including its hot prepared foods bar, local produce, kombucha and nitro coffee on tap, and bulk items like Kōkua’s granola. But all of that could also go away in a few weeks if the market can’t gain the support to survive.
In the ’80s, in Kōkua Market’s early years, it carried local produce and organic brown rice in bulk, back when “local and organic” was considered a hippie fringe movement. Now, you can order exotic grains from Amazon, buy kale from Target, and shop at two Whole Foods in Honolulu, so is Kōkua Market still relevant?
As a strictly natural foods grocer, probably not. Which is why it is struggling financially at the moment. Finding itself in debt, Kōkua launched a GoFundMe campaign in November, but fell short of its $75,000 goal. It also didn’t offer any plans on how it would move forward in a very different grocery landscape from when the market first started in 1971.
So now, it’s time for new ideas. Laurie Carlson, who was a general manager for Kōkua in the ’80s, has returned to Kōkua Market’s board of directors with new plans. She wants to increase the store's role as a food hub for small Hawaiʻi producers. “What sets Kōkua apart from Whole Foods and Down to Earth is that we can deal with local vendors that are too small for Whole Foods and they can’t jump the hurdle,” Carlson says. “We give them a leg up as they grow their business.” Kōkua has been the first retailer for local producers like Local I‘a’s seafood, Kunoa Cattle’s beef and Mrs. Cheng’s organic tofu.
Carlson’s also hoping to expand Kōkua’s prepared food offerings, open a coffee and juice bar, and in an effort to become a zero-waste grocer, bring in more specialty bulk items, including wine and beer. Imagine bringing in bottles and being able to fill them with organic beer and wine. Carlson thinks it’s possible.
But first, she needs the community to buy in. Kōkua’s target is to sell 1,000 shares for $150 each by Feb. 22. As of today, 800 shares have been sold. (If the goal isn’t met, all money will be returned.) Each purchase is a vote in confidence for Kōkua’s future. If all the shares sell, then Carlson says, “we can get loans lined up and then we can march forward. I think there’s a lot of stuff that could come together in Mō‘ili‘ili that hasn’t happened yet.”
Open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., 2643 S. King St., (808) 941-1922, kokuamarket.com
Read more stories by Martha Cheng