On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Anca Balbaie, the chef, social media manager, cashier and general shopkeeper at the new restaurant and grocery Papa Cristo’s on Waialae Avenue, looked out the window and waved at the passerby, Zoe Zhang, proprietor of the new Plantoem plant store, cafe and poetry salon.
“It’s like home,” Balbaie said of her new neighborhood. “It’s so cozy, and everybody knows everybody.”
It’s far from clear whether that cozy feeling will be enough to sustain fledgling enterprises like Papa Cristo’s and Plantoem amid the uncertainties of Covid-19’s shape-shifting variants. But one thing seems clear: entrepreneurs are flocking to Kaimuki, taking over storefronts left vacant amid the pandemic. And part of the allure is the small-town Main Street vibe.
“We are Kaimuki residents now,” said Nalani McLaughlin, owner of Red Pineapple, a stationery and gift store that recently moved to 12th Avenue after 14 years in Ward Center. McLaughlin has temporarily taken over a corner space formerly occupied by Gecko Books, turning it into a “Winter Wonderland” for the holidays. McLaughlin has a smaller, permanent space three doors down. She says there’s a sense of community in Kaimuki that can’t be found in malls and big box stores.
“We’re happy to be in a neighborhood of people who appreciate shopping small,” she said. “And that’s what Kaimuki is.”
Kaimuki is hardly the only place in Hawaii where entrepreneurs are starting new businesses as the economy slowly recovers from the worst days of the Covid-19 crisis. U.S. census data show new business applications – which cover all sorts of entities — increased significantly statewide, from 1,029 in April 2020, when the Hawaii economy was largely shut down, to a peak of 1,759 in July 2021, a 71% increase. In October, the latest month available, there were 1,509 applications, according to the census.
Drill down deeper, to what the census calls “high-propensity” businesses, and the trend is similar, although muted. High-propensity businesses include ones that either have said they plan to hire people, or are in fields that typically do, like retail stores and restaurants. After dropping from a recent peak of more than 400 per month in late 2018 to 323 in April 2020, high-propensity business license applications peaked at 591 statewide in July, the highest monthly number recorded by the census dating back to 2004.
And Kaimuki seems to be getting its share. While many storefronts remain empty, with windows blinded by plywood or brown paper, every block seems to boast businesses that moved in during the pandemic.
“There’s definitely been a new page turned for the neighborhood,” said Jordan Lee, owner of The Public Pet and founder of Keep It Kaimuki, a grassroots group that seeks to celebrate Kaimuki’s unique community of mostly mom-and-pop enterprises.
On one hand, Lee said, it is sad to see many small businesses close. On the other, he said, it is encouraging to see many new businesses determined to be part of the neighborhood.
“They’ve definitely planted themselves into the community fabric,” he said.
One thing many of the new businesses have in common is they include multiple revenue streams. Of course, some clearly specialize: the new Noods Ramen Bar mainly sells ramen; startup Cowcow’s Tea mainly sells tea.
But others offer combinations of things to draw in customers and generate cash flow. Balbaie’s Papa Cristo, for instance, is a Mediterranean and European grocery that specializes in halal items plus a restaurant that serves chicken and lamb shawarma and daily specials.
Zhang’s place is a plant store, plus a cafe. She also holds monthly poetry readings; in fact the name Plantoem is a play on the words “plant” and “poem.” There’s also Cutlery, a new restaurant, bar and barbershop that took over the space once occupied by Town restaurant. Popoki + Tea isn’t just a cafe, it’s also a cat shelter, where people can reserve time to chill out over coffee or tea while petting felines.
Finally, there’s Bubbly & Bleu, another business with multiple revenue streams born out of the pandemic. The shop on Koko Head Avenue was founded by Cheryl DeAngelo, who is also president and chief executive of Honolulu’s Side Street Inn, and her husband, Fred DeAngelo, a longtime chef who previously was executive chef at Palomino, as well as Ola at Turtle Bay resort, which the couple founded.
Stuck at home during the pandemic, with the couple’s plans to start a new restaurant at the Ala Moana Hotel stalled by the virus, Cheryl DeAngelo created 20 boxes with cheese, salami, fruit, nuts and flowers arranged like still-life paintings and delivered them to friends and family around Thanksgiving. Word spread, and by Christmas the couple had orders for some 400 boxes.
Now Bubbly & Bleu sells gourmet cheese and charcuterie from its French blue storefront, along with items like local honey, culinary gifts and housewares. Fred DeAngelo offers a chef’s table dining service at night. There are cooking classes and classes on how to make cheese and charcuterie boards.
Most of all, Cheryl DeAngelo says, the couple wants Bubbly & Bleu to be a social hub for the neighborhood, including nearby businesses.
“Some of our best customers are our neighbors,” she said.
That sense of community is a recurring theme during interviews with Kaimuki merchants. Calvin Hara is president of the 75-year-old, 100-member Kaimuki Business and Professional Association. He grew up in Kaimuki before spending years in California for college and work and eventually retiring. He marvels at the variety of new businesses, many founded by young and hungry millennials, as well as the old ones, like Kaimuki Dry Goods and Koa Pancake House, which have been there for generations.
Hunter Long, a world-class skateboarder who gave up her dream of trying out for the U.S. Olympic team because of the pandemic, instead did something perhaps more challenging: she opened Keep It Simple, a “zero-waste” store on Waialae Avenue, when Hawaii’s economy was largely shut down. The shop sells things like laundry detergent, household cleaners, and shampoo in bulk, along with reusable glass bottles and jars for storing everything. There are also bulk beans, rice, popcorn kernels, kombucha and iced coffee.
As much as possible, Long says, Keep It Simple sells local brands.
“We’re not just trying to grow our brand, but the brands of the people in the community,” she said.
Perhaps the most visible change in the works is a large construction project at the corner of Waialae and Koko Head Avenue. The developer, 3650 Waialae LLC, is an affiliate of The Omidyar Group, which was founded by Civil Beat’s publisher, Pierre Omidyar. The new building will have retail space on the ground floor for a Hawaii Goodwill store and restaurant, as well as three floors of office space, said Amy Hennessey, a spokeswoman for 3650 Waialae.
Less obvious are all the closed businesses. Amanda Watkins has run her shop, Awa & Olena, since 2018. She sells locally made wellness and beauty products as well as handmade jewelry. She’s survived amid the ebb and flow of closings and new businesses thanks to local customers, many of whom rallied to support local businesses when the pandemic started.
The past year has been a bit tougher, Watkins says, but she rattles off the names of businesses less fortunate, ones that have closed: Vegan Hills, Kikue, Town restaurant, Gecko Books. Other closures include Azteca Mexican food and the Stir yogurt shop.
“It’s been in waves, just like the pandemic,” she said.
Regardless of whether all the new businesses can survive, one thing is clear: A new generation is making its mark on the neighborhood. Alana Freitas grew up in Wilhelmina Rise overlooking Kaimuki before moving to Los Angeles, then returning home. She now works as a charter school teacher and part time at Keep It Simple.
“I always tell people it wasn’t cool to hang out here when I grew up,” Freitas said. “Now everybody wants to be in Kaimuki.”
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