Ten years ago, Jeanette Baysa and Katherine Patton ditched careers in corporate America (they had both worked in project management in Honolulu) for a slower paced, rural lifestyle and more rewarding work on Hawaii’s Big Island. Since then, they’ve been running Hilo Coffee Mill on the island’s eastern side, where they now cultivate their own crops and process, package and market coffee grown by local farmers. No batch is too small. “Our primary goal is to support the small family farm and find a market for these artisanal coffees both locally and abroad,” says Jeanette.
While everyone associates Hawaii with Kona coffee (grown on the western end), the Big Island’s wetter, cooler eastern side produces some of the richest beans in the world. In fact, in the 1800s over 6,000 acres of coffee trees flourished there, until sugar took over as the state’s more profitable crop. Now that sugar production has declined, East Hawaii coffee is making a comeback. And Katherine and Jeanette are on a mission to help small, family-run plantations prosper once again.
A vision percolates: Though they lived in the midst of “coffee heaven,” Katherine and Jeanette couldn’t find any good local coffee being served. They opened a small espresso cafe in a Hilo shopping center, but were sourcing the beans from the mainland. “Local farmers often asked us to buy their coffee,” says Katherine. “We really wanted to, cause it was delicious, but with coffee being our main business, we couldn’t rely on the farmer for our only supply.” Then they hit upon a solution, deciding to start Hilo Coffee Mill in February 2001, a business that could buy direct from farmers and also import coffee from many different countries, ensuring a consistent supply. They’d process and package local farmers’ custom coffees and market them to island restaurants, and globally as well.
Start-up steps: They leased a small storefront/warehouse space in an industrial park in Kea’au, and initially took the green coffee to a company in Kona—3 hours away—where it was roasted. But the trip was tiring and time-consuming, and when a friend’s sister in Washington State had a roaster for sale, they jumped at the chance to buy it. They started with one farmer, who is still with them today, and rounded up restaurant partners simply by approaching local places that served coffee. “Our first client was a restaurant we dined at often,” says Jeanette. “That restaurant, Don’s Grill, is still with us after all these years!” Jeanette and Katherine became known as the “coffee ladies.” They ran the business out of Kea’au for 4 years, during which time they acquired more equipment and warehouse space, funded by loans from relatives, friends and shareholders who believed in their dream. “We knew that we eventually wanted to move to a site on the highway, visible to tourists and locals, where we could have a small visitor center and grow a little coffee of our own,” says Jeanette.
How business grew: Katherine began investigating some vacant old sugarcane land and found that a 400-acre parcel in Mountain View, right along Volcano Highway on the way to the national park, was being subdivided into smaller lots. They were able to purchase 24 acres. It took 3 bulldozers and 6 months to prepare the land that Hilo Coffee Mill now occupies. The enterprise has morphed into a full-service coffee mill and plantation, with a retail shop, Latte Da coffee and tea bar, catering and marketing services, and a Saturday farmer’s market featuring eggs from their own chickens and other locally grown items. There are also educational tours showcasing the coffee production process—from plant to cup. They started with 500 seedlings, and now have 6,000 trees, this year yielding about 4,000 pounds of roasted coffee. And today the “coffee ladies” buy from over 15 farmers on Hawaii Island, plus many from Kauai, Oahu, Maui and Molokai. “The business has definitely taken on a life of its own,” says Katherine. “But our core mission is the same: Offering fresh roasted Hawaiian grown coffee, supporting our local farmers, and providing a great place for our local community to work, gather and have fun.”
From farm to table: One of the most challenging parts of the business is getting people to know what it stands for, admits Jeanette. “We support local agriculture, and those who have made the hard choice to grow our food responsibly. We live on an island, so it’s important to be in business not only for ourselves, but for our community. We depend on the small farmer, and they depend on us.” She adds that many people forget that Hawaiian coffee is a domestic product, the consumption of which affects a US farmer. “Our goal is to enlighten consumers to get as close to the producers of their food as possible. If they can see the environment where the food comes from, the more likely they are to support those enterprises. We hope to teach that sustainability is achievable, even in small ways.”
Finding your own piece of paradise: Katherine and Jeanette urge aspiring entrepreneurs to “dream big.” Do what you love and do it with passion, they say. But also plan it out first and make every step count. “Don’t start something that you aren’t ready to completely handle,” Katherine cautions. And have fun. “When you love what you do, it almost doesn’t feel like ‘work.’ Paradise is what you make of where you are.”
As I sit here in my home office, looking at the snowdrifts outside my window (and wondering why work-at-homers never get snow days), my mind wanders to Hawaii. Though I can’t escape right now (aloha, deadlines!), I thought I’d at least share some memories of my most recent trip.
On my press trip to Hawaii’s Big Island in December 2009, I got to channel my inner daredevil. It was billed as an Adventure tour, and 6 fellow journalists and I got to experience Hawaii’s beauty from many exciting angles. We peered over the edge of a waterfall on a rainforest hike, saw lava sizzle into the sea, and zoomed over rivers and trees on a zipline. If you and your family are can’t-sit-still types, you’ll love the super-fun ways to explore this gigantic island. Here are 2 of my top picks. (I’ll be sharing other great adventures in an upcoming Family Circle article).
Take a hike! Some of the Big Island’s most awesome scenery is hidden deep in the rainforest, and you’ll need a skilled guide to help you discover it. On our Hawaii Forest & Trail Waipi’o Rim Hike, we were led by the knowledgeable Rob Pacheco, who runs the company with his wife Cindy. (I’ll be profiling Cindy and the family business in a later post.) Located on the northeast coast, Waipi’o is known as the Valley of Kings, and is considered a sacred spot. In ancient times it was home (and burial grounds) for Hawaiian rulers. Rob led us along trails 1,0000 feet above the valley, stopping frequently to regale us with Hawaiian legends. It was fun to learn about the double-leaf fern symbolizing twin brothers, and the waterfall named after a shark-man. The 3-hour hike (billed as moderate level, for kids over age 8 ) was challenging, but we all made it over the slippery paths and plank-and-rope bridges. Some of the braver ones in our group (not me!) even peeked over the edge of Hi’ilawe Falls, the tallest in the state. We might have been a bit muddy by the time we reached the end of our trek, but the final vista was well worth it. We looked out onto cliffs sliced by waterfalls, and saw the black sand beach where the Waipio River empties into the sea. It was the perfect setting for a picnic lunch, included with the tour. Info: The hike itself is around 3 hours; but allow 7-8 hours for the round trip, which departs from HF&T headquarters in Kailua-Kona or Waikoloa Queen’s Marketplace on Kohala Coast. Adults, $149; kids ages 8 – 12, $119.
Pedal through Volcanoes National Park. A volcano is made of more than molten lava, and we got to see other sides of the mountain on the “Bike Kilauea Volcano” tour with BikeVolcano.com.
After gearing up with helmets and mountain bikes, our guide led us on a ride around Kilauea’s rim, along off-road trails and paved roads. We stopped at steam vents to feel the blast of heat, and peered into the enormous crater and caldera, where a distant plume of smoke signaled eruption. We pedaled and hiked through a lush fern forest, and walked through the famous Thurston Lava Tube, where the hot stuff once flowed. Our guide was full of interesting information about the park, and it was comforting to know that a van was at the ready to transport us if we got tired. Info: The five-hour tour includes lunch and an optional winery visit. Adults, $129; kids under 12, $119.