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Locally Processed Foods by Honolulu Gourmet Foods

CI0A9579Honolulu Gourmet Foods restaurant at Paradise Palms Café on the University of Hawai‘i Mānoa campus serves locally grown prepared food at reasonable prices.Balancing being a mom and business entrepreneur, Jill Lee built Honolulu Gourmet Foods upon the counter-mainstream model of sourcing locally grown ingredients and making her products exclusively in Hawai‘i. “The cost of doing business is high in Hawai‘i. At the end of the day, am I proud of my products and our steady customer base confirms that there is a market for high quality, Hawai‘i-made products,” explains Lee.

Weighing in at fewer than 10 employees, Honolulu Gourmet Foods produces salad dressings, a pesto product line, and a hummus product line (now sold). The company sells its products at a diverse range of markets. Lee has had a booth at KCC Farmers Market for many years and the venue has proven to be successful on several levels. It allows her to produce in small batches and sell directly to consumers, which is more lucrative than wholesaling. The market has also proven to be an ideal venue for sourcing ingredients directly from farmers. “I’ve differentiated my product line by utilizing local ingredients and making products in Hawai‘i. Partnering with farmers who supply us is essential to our business model. Our suppliers from the KCC Farmers Market have become family,” explains Lee. By purchasing directly from farmers, many of Lee’s ingredients are less expensive and much higher quality than imported. “Establish long term and friendly relationships with your farmers—you take care of them and they will take care of you. Make life easy for them wherever possible, such as picking up products from a convenient location at a convenient time.” To ensure a year-round supply, Lee stockpiles seasonal ingredients, usually by freezing.

The company also sells pesto at Costco, where this product was picked from Lee’s line after extensive customer sampling. Once each week, Honolulu Gourmet Foods also sells their locally grown, nutritious meals to employees at Queens and Kaiser Hospital. Additionally, Lee operates a restaurant concession at Paradise Palms Café on the University of Hawai‘i Mānoa campus. At this location, students may purchase meals and snacks made from local ingredients purchased directly from farmers and fishermen. “I pitched the idea of serving our food on campus and due to the dearth of local food available for purchase at the university, they loved the idea. Because of the favorable rent agreement, we are able to sell local food at reasonable prices, which is important especially for cash-strapped students,” explains Lee proudly. One of Lee’s biggest suppliers, the certified organic teaching farm Ma‘o Farms in Wai‘anae, has many students who attend UH Mānoa and who have access to their own produce even when on campus through Lee’s restaurant.

When developing her value-added products, Lee tests small trial batches first, then scales up and re-tests numerous variations until the product is optimized for flavor, aroma, consistency, and a reasonable shelf life. Certain products such as salad dressings require consultation with a food scientist, which Lee has received from people such as Professor Wayne Iwaoka at the UH Mānoa Department of Human Nutrition, Food & Animal Sciences.

Accounting for her success, Lee explains, “My products taste better because they are made from fresh local ingredient in small batches. We make sure our products get sold quickly and do not sit on a shelf for long periods. It would be cheaper to have a mainland company mass-produce products. However, I can tell customers that these are quality ingredients, I know how it was made, and I am proud of it. Customers respond well and so far our unique business model is working.”

Honolulu Gourmet Foods, Honolulu
Jill Lee, Owner

This profile was excerpted with permission of the authors from:

Elevitch, C., and K. Love. 2013. Adding Value to Locally Grown Crops in Hawai‘i: A Guide for Small Farm Enterprise Innovation. Permanent Agriculture Resources, Holualoa, Hawai‘i. www.valueadded.info

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