Kokua Market co-op ends extended run

Mar. 25—Kokua Market's latest attempt at resurrection in recent months as Hawaii's only natural-food cooperative never really got off the ground at a new location in Palolo Valley.

Kokua Market's latest attempt at resurrection in recent months as Hawaii's only natural-food cooperative never really got off the ground at a new location in Palolo Valley.

After some 52 years as a pioneering business model, the cooperative officially dissolved in early February after a Zoom vote by some 50 member-­owners, said board president Pam Gring-Fee. Membership at one time numbered in the thousands.

The shelves haven't been fully stocked since the Moiliili co-op moved into the new Hapa Market & Grill in November. But home-grown produce will remain on sale at the Palolo store, operated by Ignacio Fleishour, owner of Makana Provisions, known for its Molokai-­harvested venison. He has hired four Kokua Market staff and hopes to keep its volunteers.

Fleishour still intends to purchase items from about 20 local farmers and plans to bring in more Big Island produce in addition to selling meat and ready-made natural food. The market also offers breakfast in the coffee shop until additional kitchen staff can be hired to expand its hours.

Gring-Fee, a member of the co-op since 1981 and who served as manager off and on during the past four years, was obviously downhearted about the closure. "I worked really hard over all these really down years trying to keep things going. ... Everybody was trying really hard, " she said.

The market actually closed for what was thought to be the final time in September, before the board tried again to revive the business under better economic conditions with the move to Palolo last fall. But Gring-Fee said the lack of funds to restock inventory and adequately operate the store finally took its toll. Other factors that led to its demise were the inability to hire a professionally trained manager, dwindling board membership and other challenges inherent to running a viable co-op.

"You have to get people in there shopping. ... The idea of a co-op is that it is democratically run and is owned by its members so they have the incentive to shop there, " she said, also blaming the closure on the cumulative effects of the high rent at the former Moiliili location, construction traffic next door and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The store was founded in 1971, and original Kokua members joined in the'70s and'80s, many of them students of the nearby University of Hawaii at Manoa. But many have moved away or since died, and it was difficult to replace them with equally dedicated members, she said.

Gring-Fee also pointed to the arrival of Whole Foods in 2008, which "took away a lot of air out of our sales."

Laurie Carlson was one of the co-founders of Kokua Country Foods, as the market was called when it was started as a nonprofit on Kapiolani Boulevard. In 1981 she helped introduce key legislation to allow a consumer co-op business to exist legally in the state and sell member shares without a securities permit. (The market moved to its longtime location on South King Street in 1992.)

Carlson managed the store for several years in the 1980s and later established the alternative newspaper Honolulu Weekly, which ran from 1991 to 2013. Carlson returned temporarily to head the co-op's operations in 2019 to revitalize the store, implementing a GoFundMe drive and a new capital campaign to stave off closure.

Now a beekeeper and active in the Slow Food Hawaii movement, Carlson said she is deeply sad about the market's demise.

"Kokua is still near and dear to people's hearts ; I'm sure there are other people like me that have a hole in their heart. It's like losing a relative, " she said.

The market "came to be when there wasn't anyone selling natural foods. It really sprung from a grassroots organization. That's how cooperatives often come to exist, " she said.

In the early days, people who wanted to shop at the market were required to work in the store in lieu of paying a membership fee, Carlson said. A lot of great relationships, friendships and networking in the community developed from there, she said, naming prominent state leaders who once volunteered at the market. "It was a special time, " she said.

"What I do feel kind of sorry for are young adults now (consumed ) by social media and they don't have any time. But gee, wouldn't it be great to come to a place where you had shared values and cared about food and you spent time together working ? And that's what we did. My best friends are people that I met at Kokua ; it's kind of an amazing thing to me !"

Hapa Market & Grill—Where : 1720 Palolo Ave.—Hours : 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays—Contact : Email sales @hapacompany.com.