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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Business blooming for Farmers

By Robbie Dingeman

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Koolau Farmers General Manager Elton Hara shows off miniature phalaenopsis orchids at the Kane'ohe store.

ROBBIE DINGEMAN | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Koolau Farmers

Number of employees: 18 at three stores in Kāne'ohe, Kailua and Honolulu

How long in business: First founded in 1941 as co-op but changed to a for-profit company in 1987

Describe your business: General manager Elton Hara: "We're kind of like the Hasegawa General Store of gardening. We try to have a lot of different products, but our main focus is green goods, plants, cut flowers."

Core strategy: "We've identified our niche. We needed to get focused in on a segment of customers. You cannot please everyone."

Business survival tip: "You have to surround yourself with good people. You have to train them well and you have to have a plan."

Fun fact: Koolau Farmers specializes in local and exotic plants and recently brought in Australian Grass Trees that sell for $399.99 but can live to be 600 years old. They are almost sold out of the slow-growing tree.

Best way to contact: Kāne'ohe 247-3911; Kailua, 263-4414; Honolulu, 843-0436 or on the Web at www.koolaufarmers.com

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Koolau Farmers got started in January 1941 when a group of Windward farmers began a cooperative where members would meet and trade plants and products that included eggs and chickens.

As decades passed, the co-op operation grew to specialize in local plants, orchids of all shapes and sizes, fruit trees, vegetable starters and the seeds, soils, pots and accessories to grow them.

General Manager Elton Hara said the farmers branched out a little at a time, started selling fertilizer, and eventually started selling plants and cut flowers from the original Kāne'ohe store because of its location across from Hawaiian Memorial Park.

The farmers added stores in Kailua and Honolulu. In 1987, the farmers turned the company into a for-profit company and the farmers became the shareholders, Hara said.

Koolau succeeds by offering more exotic and varied plants than the Home Depots, Walmarts and Costcos will carry and by trying to offer more personalized service as a neighborhood store that also specializes in local plants and cut flowers, Hara said.

"We focus a lot on the exotic plants that the box stores don't have," Hara said. "We can't sell everything cheap because we don't have that volume."

Hara, 54, joined the company in 2002, hired away after a long career heading Star Garden, which ran the garden stores of Star Supermarkets.

"We try to get exotic orchids. We sell seedlings. We sell a lot of tropicals and try to get new varieties that aren't on the market," he said.

This week's orchid selections included one that smells like coconuts; and a miniature phalaenopsis selling for $14.99.

Koolau offers consistently competitive pricing on vegetable starter plants and bedding plants. And they carry a wide variety of fruit trees including mango, avocado, starfruit and various citrus.

In response to the sagging economy, more customers are buying fruit trees and starting vegetable gardens to provide a cheap, healthy and tasty food source. Hara said the company has tripled its vegetable offerings.

Hara also experiments with selling a wide variety of local products, selling papayas, bananas and avocadoes in season. He regularly carries Frank's Foods meat products from the Big Island (including blood sausage), some 100 percent Kona coffee and even wildflower honey produced by Charles Reppun in Windward O'ahu.

Since he came on, Hara said the company has increased sales every year except for last year. He's proud of the work they do, especially coming off of five years of sales declines that preceded his arrival.

Last year, he said sales dipped about 8 percent but this year has improved with the first three months showing positive.

Customer and Kahalu'u resident Michael Nakamura has been steadily expanding his vegetable garden including peppers, eggplant, chives, arugula, spinach and kai choi.

He shops at the bigger stores but keeps coming back to Koolau. "I like their variety and they're close."

This week he picked up a new kind of hot pepper. "It's hot but it's not like hoo-whee, what's going on."

And Hara said that's the kind of customer who keeps coming back.

"I think our success is kind of measured in our increase in sales and our increase in customers. We've put a lot of our profits back into the store," he said.

And he's not ready to stop adapting. "You have to keep on improving yourself. Keep your business an exciting place to shop."

A Damien High School graduate was was born and raised in Kāne'ohe, Hara had always seen the potential of Koolau even when he was working at Star.

So he's happy to have been able to shepherd a turnaround in its finances. "I think they lost focus of what they needed to do."

And he's quick to credit the small but plant-loving workers with a lot of the company's success.

"You need to have a love of what they do or least like what they do," Hara said. "If they're just coming to collect a paycheck, eventually they're going to leave. Usually they weed themselves out."