LAHAINA – Whether it’s supporting a community of local entrepreneurs, helping a farmer develop value-added products, or creating innovative ways to serve those in need throughout the COVID pandemic -19, the Maui Food Technology Center looked for ways to extend its roots.
For the next phase of growth, the nonprofit’s president, Luana Mahi, said Tuesday evening that the center plans to create a collaborative website and open a commercial kitchen for use by local entrepreneurs.
The organization was established in 2004 and has since had a mission to encourage, educate and create opportunities for local entrepreneurs who seek to earn a living through value-added products, agriculture, cultural practices , environmental sustainability, technology and economic diversification.
“It’s just great to see the growth and potential that’s coming out of it, and the ideas that (customers) are coming up with,” Mahi said during a meeting held at the Royal Ocean Terrace restaurant at the Royal Lahaina Resort on Tuesday evening.
Saying there is a lack of places for small food makers to house and distribute their goods and products in a commercial kitchen, the center is seeking funding of approximately $470,000 for a facility at 671 Piliwale Road in Kula.
Mahi said they were looking to renovate an empty building at the former Maui Pickled Products owned by the Uradomo family and purchase other materials needed.
It would be a place where local entrepreneurs could process their wares while having access to energy-efficient commercial catering equipment, as well as dry, cold and frozen storage; meeting spaces; a food science lab; and training facilities.
They will find out this month if the funding is approved by the Legislative Assembly, she said.
The center also hopes to create a new website and app that would help build more partnerships between ranchers and farmers, food manufacturers, wholesale buyers, restaurants, non-profits and businesses. other industrial sectors.
Mahi said the online platform will offer resources, workshops and ideas, encourage locals to support each other, open up funding opportunities and gather ideas from the community to ensure “concerns and new ideas can be addressed.”
The non-profit organization organizes workshops and educational exhibitions throughout the year, as well as national and international fairs.
Mahi said Hawaii is home to about 7,000 farms statewide, 800 in Maui, with the majority considered small operations, which means most need help with “operations, expertise and marketing.”
“One thing I like about our organization is the ability we have to react quickly to customer needs and provide confidential services.” she says.
About 15,000 new value-added products are introduced to the market nationwide each year, except that about two out of three products fail due to lack of customer appeal, such as pricing. One in five businesses lasts more than five years, and entrepreneurs spend an average of two years or more developing their new food products.
Diverse agriculture and locally made products in Hawaii are valued at $2.4 billion, creating jobs and contributing to the economy. Diversified agriculture generates 70% of the state’s farm income and farm labor.
“Value-added products offer farmers a better way to diversify, expand and increase their source of income,” she says.
Seeking to showcase locally made products, the Maui Food Technology Center has launched two food truck locations in Kahului. About 340 entrepreneurs participated in the weekly Central Maui Sunday Market, which features Maui County vendors, food trucks, farmers and others at the Kahului Mall, generating more than $1.8 million in sales to the over the past three and a half years, she said.
The nonprofit includes people from the Maui Economic Development Council, Maui County Agricultural Bureau, Hawaii Small Business Development Center, and other economic and agricultural organizations.
“All of these individuals within the community are already helping entrepreneurs, whether it’s through other programs that these organizations have…so I think we’re working together to help our various clients,” said Mahi, who also owns Hawaiian Isles Unlimited LLC. “Being part of the Maui Food Technology Center has been so much fun.”
Speaking to the Rotary Club of Lahaina Sunset on Tuesday, Mahi also explained how the organization has continued to offer virtual webinars and resources during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how collaborators have pivoted to ensure keiki and families in need had meals to eat.
The Maui Sunday Market was one of the only events able to resume, with health and safety protocols, in June 2020 after being closed for some time due to the pandemic.
“I used to annoy the mayor’s office on a fairly regular basis because I felt sorry for the vendors who relied on this event to make money,” Mahi said.
What started as an effort to feed pandemic-affected kupuna, keiki and homeless later morphed into Maui Street Market, the center’s newest food truck hub that launched Feb. 1 in the parking lot located at 150 Hana Highway.
“All the owners were saying they ‘had nowhere to park, most of us parked along the street at the port and it wasn’t safe, the dirt was exploding in our truck’, so we started looking for a place”, she says.
As a result, the center launched the Feeding Maui Nui program in partnership with the Maui County Office of Aging to help qualified kupuna access food. According to the Office on Aging, a total of 919 participants received 50,559 meals at 34 participating food trucks and vendors in Maui and Molokai from July 2020 through December 2021.
Funding was also received from Maui United Way to sponsor three food trucks to park near schools that need it most.
Following the closure of restaurants and hotels, many farmers and business partners found themselves with extra perishables, so places like S&J Bakery Inc. and SunFresh also donated items to fill meals.
“We kind of used everything we could and we were able to feed a bunch of kids,” she says.
To date, the Feeding Maui Nui program has provided over 60,000 meals since April 2020.
The center also worked with the county to provide about 3,400 value-added products from local farmers to fill community supported agriculture boxes just before Christmas, she added, which was part of the program of U.S. Department of Agriculture coronavirus food assistance.
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at [email protected]