KILAUEA, Kauai – In late 2018, two local business investors bought a former guava wharf plantation on the north coast of Kauai to bolster Hawaii’s local food system.
As they built a team of experts in business, community building, and agriculture, a vision took shape for Common Ground, an 83-acre campus where food producers and consumers can engage through impact investing and business mentoring programs. Agriculture, a restaurant and a restaurant could meet event space.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, underscoring the urgent need for a Hawaiian food economy independent of airplanes and cargo ships. The public health crisis has also highlighted the risk of Hawaii’s heavy reliance on tourism.
As a result, the startup has put aside the hospitality components of its strategy and focused on the goal of helping Hawaiian food business operators step up their efforts to reach a larger audience.
“When COVID happened, we saw how fragile everything is in Hawaii and how vulnerable we are to global trends and global supply chains as well as global disasters and pandemics,” said Adam Watten, Common Ground’s culinary manager. “That really affirmed the mission here to only use this core of the food as a connector.”
Less than two years old, Common Ground is becoming an example of how Hawaiian-made food products can be supported while addressing the classic challenges their business owners face, including supply chain bottlenecks, high labor costs and an inability to keep up with prices of big boxes to compete.
The company’s previous food innovation center includes a 1 hectare sustainable farm that integrates trees and shrubs into food crops and animal pastures using tropical agroforestry techniques. The farm is offered as a model that can be tailored to different climates and regions to produce food in a way that rehabilitates neglected and depleted agricultural land.
An e-commerce platform offers Hawaiian-made foods with added value such as macadamia nut butter, vanilla extract, raw honey, pickled breadfruits, beef jerky, wild dog treats, canned ahi, chocolate, tea and coffee. When the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, these products will also be sold in a local retail store.
“You can’t often equip your small food business with a really diverse, knowledgeable team. So we can help with what will only make the business more profitable. “- Adam Watten, Culinary Manager at Common Ground
Common Ground’s greatest impact on Hawaii’s local food economy is arguably through two impact investing programs.
There is an incubator program that provides Kauai-based food business owners with basic business development. For more mature, investor-ready food companies across the state, there is an accelerator program in place that includes a $ 100,000 investment, mentoring, and a pipeline to scale their products.
In return for this support, Common Ground acquires a stake in each company and becomes a good partner.
“We can put the skills of the entire team behind any specific problem these people face,” said Watten of the companies enrolled in Common Ground’s incubator and accelerator programs. “And when you do business that way, you find that it is often a limiting barrier for many people.”
“You can’t often equip your small food business with a really diverse, knowledgeable team,” he said. “So we can help with what will only make the business more profitable.”
For example, Watten is an expert in supply chain integration. He is the former head chef at Koa Kea Hotel & Resort on Poipu Beach and the founder of a short-lived Kauai grocery store that was founded in 2016 and sold exclusively food grown and made in Hawaii.
Farm Manager John Parziale has decades of experience in conducting and teaching permaculture and sustainable agriculture. Chairman Oliver Niedermaier is the CEO of a New York and Hong Kong-based investment firm focused on transforming global supply chains. Brian Halweil, Ventures Portfolio Manager, has experience managing food and agriculture impact funds.
For Kauai macadamia nut butter maker Tiny Isle, Common Ground’s accelerator program led the company to turn away from the tourism market and redesign the product as a pantry staple, Watten said. The program also helped the company expand its supply chain by finding new suppliers of macadamia nuts from the Big Island. Common Ground is currently building a pipeline for the product to mainland west coast markets.
The accelerator program helped Slow Island Food & Beverage Co. double its supply chain by promoting partnerships with growers of orange and passion fruit, key ingredients in the company’s turmeric elixir, Watten said. By increasing production, the company in New York was able to expand into new markets.
At over $ 20 for Tiny Isle’s macadamia nut butter and around $ 13 for Slow Island’s 4-ounce turmeric wellness elixir, Watten admits that many value-added products from Hawaii will never attract everyday bargain hunters . But he believes that people are increasingly willing to pay more for quality, sustainable products than treats for themselves, gifts for others, or the occasional luxury item.
“People are aware of the value of building our own resilience here through the food system, and I think people are willing to spend a little more,” said Watten. “And if we can expand the scope of this entire food system, we will inevitably lower the cost of food production. So that’s kind of an idea. “
Common Ground is accepting applications for the second cohort of its nationwide accelerator program through March 31.
In addition to its investment programs, Common Ground makes its campus available to companies that require manufacturing space.
Rainbow Road, a Kauai plant-based ice cream company with flavors infused with Hawaiian breadfruit, moringa, honeycomb and coconuts, will soon be making its product in Common Ground’s certified kitchen.
Kauai entrepreneur Melia Foster recently brought all production for her Meli Wraps company back from Oregon to Hawaii under a Common Ground lease.
The company, which makes reusable food packaging using Big Island beeswax as a sustainable alternative to plastic sandwich bags and plastic packaging, was founded in 2016 out of Foster’s Kauai garage and kitchen. But as the business grew and garnered big national accounts like Whole Foods, most of product production shifted to the mainland, where shipping and labor costs are cheaper.
For Foster, this led to a kind of brand identity crisis.
“I’ve always felt that our prints are tropical, we’re from Hawaii, our brand is Hawaii, so it has always been my dream to bring all of our production back here,” said Foster. “I don’t think it could ever have happened without Common Ground.”
Common Ground is still actively looking for more investors and companies to work with. In the meantime, it is pushing its programs to prove its business model.
Finally, the company plans to open a farm-to-table restaurant to introduce guests to a menu of local dishes.
“Tourism is going to return and that will certainly benefit us in terms of revenue generation,” said Jennifer Luck, Program Director and Community Impact, Common Ground. “But I think what makes our model different is that we don’t rely entirely on it and are actively investing in building an essentially new food economy for Kauai and the state.”
Hawaii Grown is funded in part by grants from the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Ulupono Fund, the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Marisla Fund, and the Frost Family Foundation.
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