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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Coffee pioneer James Delano

by Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Delano checks his Lion Coffee inventory. He resurrected the defunct brand and introduced gourmet roasting to Hawai'i.


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James Delano, the Hawai'i businessman who made Lion Coffee a modern household name, has died.

Delano, 56, died on Jan. 6 while visiting Mumbai, India, where he was volunteering with a local service organization. Cause of death has not been publicly released.

A successful entrepreneur with a sometimes quirky nature, Delano was a pioneer in local gourmet coffee roasting who turned Lion from a defunct American brand into one of the nation's fastest-growing companies.

Delano also led an ambitious but unsuccessful attempt to start an interisland airline after he sold Lion in 2000, and most recently was studying at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Friends said Delano was on break from his studies at NYU Wagner when he died.

"He was a dear man," said Kevin Hoffberg, who helped Delano start Lion as a Downtown Honolulu coffee roasting business and cafe 30 years ago.

Delano was born in Rolla, Mo., in 1953 and moved to Hawai'i in 1977, two years after earning an art history degree from Principia College in Illinois.

His idea to get into the coffee business stemmed from some art memorabilia he had collected dating to the 1800s marketing materials for Lion Coffee, a defunct brand of Ohio's Woolson Spice Co. that had once been the second-largest coffee roaster in the world.

Delano bought the Lion brand and recruited Hoffberg and another former college buddy, Jonathan Barner, to build a cafe.

"Not knowing anything about anything, we built a cafe," recalled Hoffberg, who left the company early on with doubts about its future. "Jim had a vision," he said. "He was before his time. There was no meaningful gourmet coffee business in Hawai'i."

Lion began roasting international coffee in a historic building at 222 Merchant St. in 1980, and grew the business into a dominant wholesaler that in part led to the company being named one of the 500 fastest-growing U.S. companies by Inc. Magazine in 1989.

Jim Wayman, a local coffee industry veteran who heads Hawaii Coffee Co., which, like Lion, was acquired by Paradise Beverages, said Delano stayed ahead of the marketplace.

"I found Jim to be one of the most intelligent and visionary marketers that I have ever run across," he said.

After selling Lion, Delano drew up a plan to start an interisland airline dubbed Fly Hawaii Airlines, or Fly Hi. Service was envisioned to begin in early 2006, but the endeavor was derailed after Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group announced in late 2005 that it would launch go!

In addition to the airline plan, Delano, who traveled the world extensively while running Lion, spent considerable time and effort helping local adoption agency Hawaii International Child investigate foreign program opportunities in countries including Ethiopia, Nepal and South Africa.

"He was eager to help out," said agency executive director Kristine Altwies. "He was always giving."

Furthering an aim to give back to the community, Delano enrolled in The New School in New York to study nonprofit management in 2007, and a year later transfered to NYU Wagner.

Delano's other interests over the years included fitness, film and art. He was a supporter of an annual Honolulu film series, and provided space for local artists to produce and display their work.

Some who knew Delano well said he could be quirky, but that he was passionate about nearly everything he got involved in.

At one point in retirement, he became a freelance journalist in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

"He was just relentlessly curious," Hoffberg said. "He was interested in the human condition."

Delano is survived by his life partner, Kimberely Rector of Connecticut and New York; his brother and sister-in-law, Jay and Marsha Delano of St. James, Mo.; and a nephew, Jonathan Delano.

A memorial service is being handled by a group of close friends, who request that donations toward funeral expenses be sent in lieu of flowers. Donations can be sent to Lewis Canfield, 167 N. 9th St., Brooklyn, NY 11211.