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December 10, 2018

Can A New Generation Save Honolulu’s Oldest Natural Foods Store?

Categories: Food | Featured

Published in Civil Beat on December 10, 2018

The Kokua Market is on life support, trying to survive in a marketplace where Whole Foods is ubiquitous and even McDonald’s serves quinoa.

When Kokua Market, the natural foods emporium on King Street, was founded nearly 50 years ago as a nonprofit organization, it had a clear vision: not just to sell organic produce and exotic whole grains, but also to be an alternative to the corporate business establishment.

Now, with organic products and niche grains widely available in stores like Wal-Mart, and even McDonald’s starting to serve quinoa, a new generation of idealists is attempting to save Kokua Market from oblivion.

Jesse Cohen, Kokua Market’s acting general manager, said the market’s financial situation is precarious, but that it has plenty of support.

“We’re hoping those rays of light break the clouds apart,” Cohen said.

But it will take more than poetic metaphors to save Kokua Market.

The store needs almost $30,000 a month just to pay rent and taxes and keep the lights on, said Doorae Shin, a 26-year-old board member. To lower costs, Kokua Market has cut its staff of 40 to a skeleton crew augmented by volunteers. Its 27-year-old chef, Allyee Jepma, is cooking on a shoestring budget using donated ingredients.

The market’s long-term plan isn’t clear. A farm-to-table café is nearly a certainty, Shin said. So is the general idea of being a retail food hub for local brands like Kunoa Cattle Co. and SKY Kombucha, as well as local farmers, she said.

Kokua Market also has a big kitchen it could lease to small businesses and food trucks, she said.

But whether Kokua will keep trying to compete with full-service grocery stores isn’t clear. Even the future of the bulk bins – the iconic symbols of natural food stores – isn’t certain.

“It’s becoming a blank slate for investors who see the potential,” Shin said.

Kokua Market’s decline is a sign of the times, said Dave Gutknecht, who edits a magazine published by the Cooperative Grocer Network, a national consortium of grocery cooperatives.

With once-exotic whole grains and organic fruits now commonplace in supermarkets as well as Amazon’s ubiquitous Whole Foods Market stores, such products are no longer specialty items that draw customers.

That’s been bad for the small retailers that were once the hippie vanguard of the natural foods movement, said Gutknecht.

“After breaking open the market,” he said, “they’ve become victims of their own success.”

‘Don’t Trust The Man’
Exactly who started Kokua Market isn’t clear, said Laurie Carlson, the market’s former general manager who later founded the Honolulu Weekly newspaper. What is clear, from business records, is that it was registered in late 1970 as Kokua Country Foods Cooperative.

“It was a hippie store, but we were more surfer hippies,” said Bill Saunders, a Honolulu lawyer who was one of Kokua Market’s early supporters.

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