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

Kokua Market exterior
Doorae Shin and Allyee Jepma of Kokua Market
Doorae Shin and Allyee Jepma of Kokua Market
Vintage Kokua Market
Vintage Kokua Market

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.

The first location, on Piikoi Street, was staffed largely with volunteers and had a piano in the front of the store, Carlson said. The market later moved to the corner of Beretania and Isenberg streets, where India Market now is located.

“It was a small store, but the stock just flew off the shelves,” Carlson said. “It was really busy.”

And it was about more than merely selling food, said Rick Bernstein, a longtime Honolulu yoga teacher who also was one of the early volunteer managers. It was also about defying authority, thumbing their nose at the establishment.

“Even if you could get brown rice at Foodland, it was ‘Don’t trust The Man,’” he said.

By the early 1980s Kokua Market reformed as a customer-owned cooperative under a newly passed Hawaii statute that Carlson helped get through. One section of the law codified the egalitarian ethic places like Kokua Market stood for, mandating that each “member of an association shall have one vote and one vote only” when electing directors.

There was no way for “The Man,” or even one well-intentioned investor, to take control of the company or buy seats on the board.

In 1991, around the time Carlson was starting the Honolulu Weekly, Kokua Market moved to its current space on King Street. Despite increased competition from places like Whole Foods and the multi-store Down To Earth market, Kokua Market stayed in the black until a few years ago, Carlson said.

More recently, the market has suffered disruptions from a gleaming new student apartment tower called Hale Mahana that’s been built next door. What might have been a boon for the grocer has turned into a problem because of construction traffic, Cohen, the current general manager, said.

The market is trying to negotiate with its main grocery vendor, United Natural Foods Inc., to craft a plan to pay off its debt, Cohen said. But the market needs a business plan to present to the creditor, he said.

Meanwhile, Kokua Market is clearly on life support.

On a recent afternoon, Cohen was operating the cash register, ringing up groceries for a trickle of customers. Jepma was in the deli, presiding over steam tables of lentil stew and sweet potatoes with Kirsten Biondi, a volunteer who said she feels compelled to help save the market.

With a pile of unpaid debt, Kokua needs more than a business plan.

“It will take a chunk of cash,” Carlson said. “I don’t know what that number is.”

GoFundMe campaign has raised just more than $22,000 toward its $150,000 goal. But a deep-pocketed supporter has yet to step up, despite appeals in the media.

Among other potential investors, Kokua Market has reached out to the Ulupono Initiative, a Hawaii-based social investment firm focused on renewable energy, local food production and waste management. In a statement, Ulupono said Kokua Market’s commitment to fresh, local products aligns with Ulupono’s mission and that the organization is in talks with the market.

“However, any successful solution must address the market’s current challenges and its ability to be financially sustainable over time,” Ulupono said.

Gutknecht, the editor of the Cooperative Grocer Network magazine, said small natural grocery cooperatives can still succeed in the face of increased competition, by emphasizing their local ownership and commitment to local products.

Still, even if Kokua Market can craft a viable business plan, why would an investor provide a big chunk of cash to save the venture, knowing the investment would amount to just one vote among thousands when deciding how to run the company?

“Why you would do it is you believe in what the coop is doing,” Gutknecht said.

There’s a new generation that believes in what Kokua is doing.

“That whole young group of people are exemplary,” Bernstein said. ”But they’ve also got to create a viable business model that could have enough volume to pay the bills.”

The Ulupono Initiative was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. Pierre Omidyar is the CEO and publisher of Civil Beat.


The Kokua Market needs more than $30,000 per month to keep its operations going and only has a skeleton staff still working there.

Chef Allyee Jepma, left, and board member Doorae Shin are trying to save Kokua Market.

Laurie Carlson, in green, pictured with a crew from Kokua Market in 1981, recalls the store’s heyday, when “stock just flew off the shelves.”

By Stewart Yerton,  Senior Business writer for Honolulu Civil Beat – December 10, 2018

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