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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 21, 2010

Külolo maker hopes for the best

By Lee Cataluna

Tamar Pane'e can make her own kūlolo. She is an expert who has written books on authentic Hawaiian cooking. Yet rather than make her own, she is one of Kapa'a Poi Factory's best customers, ordering boxes of kūlolo for big family parties or to take to her grandchildren on the Mainland.

"All my grandchildren recognize the box," Pane'e said. "It travels very well."

So when she went to Aloha Air Cargo to pick up a shipment of kūlolo from Kaua'i and heard, "Eh, Kapa'a Poi Factory, they might close, eh?" Pane'e started making calls.

Susan Pang's family has been running the Kapa'a Poi Factory for three generations. The building they use is the original, built in 1947. Pang's uncles Kenneth and Koon Chow Lai bought the business in 1956 from the founder. Her parents took over in the 1980s.

Now, Pang and her husband, Rankin, and their three children — one in college, one in high school and one in elementary school — process 1,500 pounds of taro a week. They combine their baked taro with coconut milk and sugar to make the traditional Hawaiian dessert that is sometimes compared to pudding, but is actually much thicker and very rich.

Pane'e considers theirs the highest-quality kūlolo.

"It's nice and smooth and gooey," she said. "I'm ma'a with the smooth."

The Kapa'a Poi Factory is way off the main road, four miles up mauka from Kapa'a High School near the reservoir. The company's 35-year lease from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources ended and it is facing a huge increase in fees.

"Of course, back then when the lease was signed, the rent was hardly anything," Susan Pang said. "We understand that it's got to go up."

The original lease was $400 a quarter. The proposed amount the Pangs have heard — $2,300 a month — is a 17-fold increase. Susan Pang said their business just can't cover that.

"We're going to try to keep going, but we have to wait and see what they're offering."

Rankin Pang said they would consider moving to a new location if they had to, but their first choice would be to stay.

"It's hard work but we enjoy doing it," Rankin Pang said. "It's gratifying, and there's the cultural element as well."

The situation is complicated by state law, which requires the leases of state lands to go up for auction at fair market value to the highest bidder.

"We don't have the ability for direct negotiation with the lease holder," said DLNR chairwoman Laura H. Thielen. "Usually, that's a good thing because of the potential for abuse."

Though it is called the Kapa'a Poi Factory, the company hasn't made poi in about 12 years.

"We couldn't get enough taro and we didn't have enough help," Susan Pang said. They were making tofu as well as kūlolo, but their boiler broke last August. After shutting down for several months, they started up again in December with just the kūlolo.

The family works five days a week, and when there are big orders for parties, they work weekends and late into the night. Hiring employees has proved difficult because of the demanding schedule, so they do everything themselves — even the deliveries to Big Save, Pono Market and other Kaua'i stores. They have a distributor in Honolulu who brings their kūlolo to Haili's in Kapahulu, Foodland and Times.

The Pangs buy their taro from growers on both sides of the island, from Hana-pēpē Valley and Hanalei.

"We rely on our growers and they rely on us to buy their taro," said Susan Pang. "They grow it for us. We have a really good relationship with the farmers."

The building isn't a storefront, just a kitchen, but people will make the drive up mauka to pick up orders for weddings, graduation parties or even funerals. There's a house on the property where the family used to live, but after Hurricane Iniki, they moved out and started using that house for storage. The property is quite off the beaten path. No Starbucks will want to compete for the lease.

The Kapa'a Poi Factory lease is tentatively on the agenda for the land board meeting March 11. The Pangs have proposed a rent increase to $1,200 a month, which they feel is reasonable and would keep their business solvent.

Meanwhile, some of their longtime customers have written letters of support for the poi factory, though the Pangs are a little nervous about that. They don't want anyone to think they're marshaling forces for a fight. What they want is an amicable solution for both parties.

"There's no doubt the state needs income," Rankin said. "We just hope we can find a reasonable compromise and negotiate in good spirit so the state is happy and we're happy."

Thielen is working with her staff to see what's possible. State land under the Department of Agriculture is not subject to the same fair market value lease requirements, and if the parcel were transferred to the Ag Department — pending approval by the land board and the governor — the state could negotiate a lease directly with the Pang family.

"We'd like to help them," Thielen said, "Clearly, their business is an important agricultural and cultural resource."