KILAUEA, Kauai — In late 2018, a pair of local business investors purchased a former guava kai plantation on Kauai’s North Shore with a plan to fortify Hawaii’s local food system.

Hawaii GrownAs 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 could meet through impact investing and business mentorship programs, farming, a restaurant and an events space.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, further underscoring the urgent need for a Hawaiian food economy independent of airplanes and cargo ships. The public health crisis also exposed the danger of Hawaii’s heavy reliance on tourism.

So the start-up set aside the hospitality-focused components of its strategy and zeroed in on a goal to help Hawaii food entrepreneurs scale up their efforts to reach a larger audience.

“When COVID happened, we saw how fragile everything is in Hawaii and how susceptible we are here to global trends and global supply chains and global catastrophes and pandemics,” said Adam Watten, Common Ground’s culinary manager. “So it really reinforced the mission here to just home in on this nucleus of food as the connector.”

Common Ground farm manager John Parziale uses tropical agroforestry techniques and state-of-the-art biological farming practices to grow sustainable food and improve the soil’s health. Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat

Less than two years old, Common Ground is becoming an example of how to support Hawaii-made food products while also addressing the classic challenges their business owners face, including supply chain shortages, high labor costs and the inability to compete with big box store pricing.

The company’s food innovation center so far includes a 1-acre sustainable farm that integrates trees and shrubs with food crops and animal pasture using tropical agroforestry techniques. The farm is being offered as a model that can be tailored to different climates and geographies as a method of producing food in a manner that rehabilitates neglected and depleted agricultural lands.

An e-commerce platform offers value-added food products made in Hawaii, such as macadamia nut butter, vanilla extract, raw honey, pickled breadfruit, beef jerky, venison dog treats, canned ahi, chocolate, tea and coffee. When the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, these products also will be sold in an on-site retail store.

“You can’t staff out your small food business with a really diverse, skilled team oftentimes. So we can help with that, which is only going to make the business more viable.” — Adam Watten, Culinary Manager at Common Ground

Common Ground’s biggest influence on Hawaii’s local food economy is arguably being made through a pair of impact investing schemes.

There’s an incubator program that provides fundamental business development to early-stage Kauai-based food entrepreneurs. For more mature, investor-ready food companies across the state, there’s an accelerator program that comes with a $100,000 investment, mentorship and a pipeline to bring their products to scale.

In exchange for this support, Common Ground earns a stake in each company, becoming a bonafide partner.

Roland Barker and Lisa Parker, owners of Tiny Isle, changed their business model to avoid being dependent on tourists. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat

“We can put the skill set of the entire team behind any particular issue that comes up for these guys,” Watten said of the companies accepted into Common Ground’s incubator and accelerator programs. “And in doing business that way, you realize that that’s often a limiting barrier for a lot of people.”

“You can’t staff out your small food business with a really diverse, skilled team oftentimes,” he said. “So we can help with that, which is only going to make the business more viable.”

Watten, for example, is an expert in supply chain integration. He is a former executive chef of Koa Kea Hotel & Resort at Poipu Beach and founder of a short-lived Kauai grocery store launched in 2016 that exclusively sold food products grown and made in Hawaii.

Farm Manager John Parziale has decades of experience doing and teaching permaculture and sustainable agriculture. Chairman Oliver Niedermaier is the CEO of a New York and Hong Kong-based investment firm focused on the transformation of global supply chains. Ventures Portfolio Manager Brian Halweil brings experience managing food and agriculture impact funds.

For Kauai macadamia nut butter-maker Tiny Isle, Common Ground’s accelerator program led the company to pivot away from the tourist market, redesigning the product as a pantry staple, according to Watten. The program also helped the company grow its supply chain by finding new suppliers of Big Island-grown macadamia nuts. Common Ground is now working on building a pipeline for the product to West Coast markets on the mainland.

The accelerator program helped Slow Island Food & Beverage Co. double its supply chain by fostering partnerships with growers of orange and passionfruit, key ingredients in the company’s turmeric elixir, Watten said. By ramping up its production, the company has been able to expand to new markets in New York.

With an over-$20 price point for Tiny Isle’s macadamia nut butter and about $13 for Slow Island’s 4-ounce turmeric wellness elixir, Watten acknowledges that many value-added products from Hawaii are never going to entice everyday bargain shoppers. But he thinks people are increasingly willing to pay more for high quality, sustainable products as treats for themselves, gifts for others or every-now-and-then luxury items.

“People are more aware of the value of growing our own resilience here through the food system, and I think people are willing to spend a little bit extra,” Watten said. “And if we can increase the scale of this entire food system, we’re going to inevitably bring the cost of food production down. So that’s sort of the idea.”

Kauai entrepreneur Melia Foster’s Meli Wraps is a more sustainable food storage alternative to plastic sandwich bags and plastic wrap. Courtesy: Melia Foster

Common Ground is accepting applications for the second cohort of its statewide accelerator program through March 31.

Beyond its investment programs, Common Ground is making its campus available to businesses that need production space.

Rainbow Road, a plant-based Kauai ice cream company with flavors infused with Hawaii-grown breadfruit, moringa, honeycomb and coconut, will soon start making its product in Common Ground’s certified kitchen.

Kauai entrepreneur Melia Foster recently returned all the production for her company Meli Wraps to Hawaii from Oregon with the help of a Common Ground lease agreement.

The company that makes reusable food wraps with Big Island beeswax as a sustainable alternative to plastic sandwich bags and plastic wrap launched in 2016 out of Foster’s Kauai garage and kitchen. But as the business grew and started to garner large national accounts, such as Whole Foods, most of the product production shifted to the mainland, where shipping and labor costs are cheaper.

For Foster, this created a bit of a brand identity crisis.

“I always felt like our prints are tropical, we’re from Hawaii, our brand is Hawaii and so bringing all of our production back here has always been this dream of mine,” Foster said. “I don’t think it ever could have happened without Common Ground.”

Common Ground is still actively seeking more investors and companies to partner with. Meanwhile, it’s pushing ahead with its programs to prove its business model.

Eventually, the company plans to open a farm-to-table restaurant, introducing diners to a menu designed around local food.

“Tourism will come back and that will benefit us, certainly, as far as revenue generation goes,” said Jennifer Luck, Common Ground’s director of programs and community impact. “But I think what makes our model different is that we’re not wholly reliant on that, and we’re actively investing in building what is essentially a new food economy for Kauai and for the state.”

“Hawaii Grown” is funded in part by grants from the Ulupono Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, the Marisla Fund at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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