By Michele Kayal
Advertiser Staff Writer
HANALEI, Kauai - Purple, scented steam billows through the screen doors at Hanalei Poi as rain streams down the backdrop of Namolokama Mountain, flooding the nearby taro fields that supply the factorys raw material.
Tall and dry in rubber body armor and a hair net, Hobey Beck helps his employees sling 80-pound bags of taro root into the mill, where each corm is being peeled to a clean, pink, grapefruit-sized nugget and sent its steamy way along the cookers conveyor belt. The rain-soaked air smells light and sweet as a loaf of baking bread, and will all day as the factory pumps out 3,500 pounds of poi packaged in neat 1-pound tubs.
"I grew up doing taro," says Beck, a 34-year-old descendant of Kauais Wilcox missionary family. "We grow 80 percent of the states taro (on the islands North Shore) and theres no mill. It made sense to do it."
Beck and his 27-year-old partner Michael "Bino" Fitzgerald - "the Poi Boys," as they like to be known - sold their first pound of the stuff in April 1999 and have since become one of the states top producers. Marketing what some have called a "boutique" product, they have gone from making 200 pounds of poi a week to making as much as 8,000 pounds a week, putting them in the No. 3 category of manufacturers.
Their payroll has grown from two to 21, and in 2000 they expect revenues to hit $900,000, triple their 1999 sales. Despite its relative priceyness - a pound often sells in the mid-$4 range, about $1 more than its competitors - Hanalei Poi is building a niche in Hawaii, on the Mainland and even among tourists with a product that caters to people who like their poi fresh, not fermented.
"It seems to me that they really enjoy it," says Gary Chock, executive chef at Smiths Tropical Paradise Luau on Kauai, which serves the poi to as many as 1,500 visitors a week. Chock says that since he replaced his previous brand with Hanalei Poi more than a year ago, he goes through about 50 pounds a week, 20 percent more than before.
"They taste it and you dont see their face turning like, What is this? Usually the guests, the tourists, they come over, they have a preconception about poi. And I think theyre surprised when they taste it," he said.
Visitors often compare poi with "glue" or "library paste," Chock and others said, adding that it has a "whoopee cushion" image among tourists. The Poi Boys also have landed the luaus at Kauais Hyatt and Sheraton hotels, Tahiti Nui restaurant, and a contract with a luau catering company.
Only one chilled
Hanalei Pois production process minimizes the bacteria that quickly turn traditional poi sour. Unlike traditional poi, which comes in a bag and sits on a shelf at room temperature, the Hanalei variety comes in sealed plastic tubs and must be refrigerated, making it the markets only chilled poi. Hanalei Poi is thick as mashed potatoes, while traditional poi is closer to oatmeal. Though poi purists may prefer the starchy staple sour, some retailers say the Kauai newcomer is gaining a following among freshness fanatics and less initiated palates.
"The people who like it really rave about it," says Gene Takahashi, owner of Takahashi Market in San Mateo, Calif., which caters to Hawaii expatriates with Hanalei Poi and four other brands. "These are mostly the people who prefer the flavor nice and fresh. The people who like traditional poi offer mixed reviews - they dont say they hate it, but they dont care for it because they cant let it get sour the way they like it."
Takahashi says he sells a case, or 24 tubs, of Hanalei Poi a week, but moves three times as much traditional poi.
Marketing to children
While the product seems to be doing well with tourists and former Hawaii residents, Beck and Fitzgerald say their real target is closer to home: mothers and their children, who will become the next generation of consumers.
"When we were getting into the business we found that the average age of the poi consumer was between 45 and 47 years old, and was getting older," Fitzgerald says. "Thats disheartening, because it means your consumer base is getting older and older. We were really concerned about getting the younger generation to eat poi. We get a lot of feedback from parents who say their kids come home and eat it as a snack, and they tell their friends, and kids are bringing it to school with dried fish instead of peanut butter and jelly, which is great."
The poi has even gained some appeal as a snack food. Some people who love poi, and even some who would never touch poi qua poi, are suddenly quaffing it down - as a dip with spicy blue corn chips.
"Those are good to dip in there or any tortilla chip," says Paul Clark, a captain with Na Pali EcoAdventures who regularly snacks on poi and chips and advises his passengers to do the same.
Hanalei Poi has found its way into dozens of outlets in Hawaii, including major grocery chains such as Safeway and Star Market, and into six stores on the Mainland. Beck says they also sell about 100 pounds a week on the Internet. But so far, large competitors say the new product has not taken a bite out of their market.
The Honolulu-based Poi Co., considered the No. 2 producer behind HPC Foods, according to industry estimates, churns out as much as 15,000 pounds of poi per week, nearly twice Hanalei Pois volume. The Poi Co. claims to outsell Hanalei Poi by 50 to 1 when the two products are in the same store.
"Its a smaller, boutique-type niche," Poi Co. president Craig Walsh says of the Hanalei brand. "We are competitors. And if we saw we were losing business to them, its easy enough for us to make a product like that."
HPC executives declined to reveal their production figures.
Some retailers say Hanalei Pois greatest strength - its freshness - is also its downfall, limiting the amount they can keep in stock because of inadequate refrigerator space or the fear that unsold poi will spoil.
"There are weeks when we could sell more, but we have to place our order about 10 days ahead of time so I try to be conservative," says Takahashi, who usually sells most of his 24 pounds. "With other brands of poi I dont worry so much, because we can always sell it sour. But the Hanalei Poi is different, and after a week and a half its bad and you have to throw it out."
Takahashi and others also say that being in the refrigerator means people may miss the poi, since most are accustomed to scouting it in bins or on a stores open shelves.
"We put some of these point-of-sale signs up, saying we now carry the Hanalei Poi that comes in a plastic tub ready to eat," he says. "We had to make a point of drawing peoples attention to it because it goes in the refrigerator. ... We were afraid people wouldnt know it was there."
Not enough taro
If Takahashi says he could sell more, the Boys say they could make more - if not for Hawaiis fabled taro shortage. Taro is one of the worlds 12 most cultivated crops, according to local poi manufacturers, but in Hawaii only about 500 acres of land are devoted to it. In 1998, Hawaii produced 6 million pounds of taro, according to state agricultural figures. By comparison, it produced 18 million pounds of ginger, 40 million pounds of papaya, and 66 million pounds of macadamia nuts.
Beck has 12 acres of taro in Waikoko Valley and Fitzgerald leases about 27 right along the Hanalei River, all devoted to their poi. But to have enough raw material for production, they also must buy taro from about 10 other small Kauai farmers - not such an easy feat.
"Its hard to get taro from other people because most of them are with the big mills," Beck says. "But theyre warming up to us."
Shortage or not, the Poi Boys say they are hoping to expand in 2001, with new products and new outlets. On the drawing board are items including poi baby food, kololo, and packaging variations for lunch boxes, luaus and fund-raisers. In February, Beck plans to visit Southern California, Oregon and Las Vegas to drum up business.