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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 15, 2003

Gourmet boutique Strawberry Connection closing

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Kim Kehrwieder, center, and store co-owner Becky Choy, right, ring up and bag groceries at the Strawberry Connection at the Dole Cannery complex in Iwilei. The store, which sells gourmet foods, will close for good tomorrow.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Strawberry Connection, a store that helped cultivate a taste for fresh, unique and gourmet foods in Hawai'i for nearly two decades, will close its doors for the last time tomorrow.

The shelves are quickly emptying and everything is priced to move, but loyal customers will never forget the experience of putting on the oversized winter coats owners Becky Choy and John Stoudt hung outside their walk-in refrigerator to keep them warm while shopping for meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables unique to the state.

"This is a disaster for the gourmet world," said long-time customer Nanette Geller. "Something very precious is being lost here. The idea of being able to put on that coat and walk into the refrigerator and find food no one else carried is irreplaceable."

Choy and Stoudt began the business in 1984 selling only the best air-flown strawberries to hotels, restaurants and bakeries. The 50-ish pair met when Choy was working at her mother's stall in the O'ahu Market in Chinatown and Stoudt was a food and beverage manager for the Ilikai hotel.

They opened shop on Kahai Street in the crowded light industrial area of Kalihi makai of Nimitz Highway, and the business slowly evolved from wholesale to retail and expanded to include prepared foods and a deli section.

Their customer base grew with the nationwide popularity of cooking. Regular customers included chefs George "Mavro" Mavrothalassitis, Alan Wong and Philippe Padovani.

In 2001, Strawberry Connection moved to the Dole Cannery shopping complex in Iwilei. The partners optimistically signed a 10-year lease, but burdened with debt and unable to find a bank willing to refinance their loans, they decided to call it quits last month despite a loyal customer base that kept sales and activity strong.

"When the banks tell you it is easier to write you off than refinance the balance of your loan, what can you do?" said Choy, who has been working 12 to 15 hours a day for almost 20 years. "We've had so much encouragement from customers. They say if you ever reopen they will come back. Their kindness, good wishes and thoughts have meant a lot. I'm just sorry that some mistakes were made, and I couldn't get out of them."

Four employees are being laid off, but all have already found other positions, Choy said.

With 50 percent off all grocery and frozen items, the store's shelves are nearly bare. Nancy Chin filled her basket with frozen duck breasts, dried cranberries and apricots and imported tea.

"I'm stuck now," Chin said yesterday. "There is no place else like this."

Geller said Strawberry Connection was always ahead of the trends in gourmet food.

"Ten years ago no one else had radicchio (a red-leafed vegetable often used in salads), and I love the stuff," Geller said. "They have bulk, oil-packed Moroccan olives. I was very inspired by what I found. Salt-packed anchovies — I've got to go buy more before they close. There is no place else to buy them now.

"Even if I could find all of these things someplace else, there is a special warmth about Becky and John that it's going to be impossible to replace."

A customer approached Choy in the store yesterday, disappointed the imported lemon curd was already sold out. Choy promised to send her an easy recipe to make it herself, and the woman walked away happy.

Choy said she is going to get some rest, spend time with her 18-month old granddaughter and will begin a business venture with her daughter making gourmet gift baskets.

Stoudt's wife has a baby on the way and he also wants to spend time with his family and a long-neglected passion — surfing. He plans to open a company called Product Source International, selling specialty wholesale items, but is still defining the concept.

"We tried just about everything to see if we could stay open, and it got to the point where we just didn't know what to do," Stoudt said. "I could write pages and pages of things to say thank you to our loyal customers. The thing that drove us was the needs of our customers. They went to Europe or the Mainland and experienced foods they couldn't get here, and we helped them find it. In turn they helped us by coming back and shopping some more.

"Thank you very much for supporting our store. It has been a real joy."