To live and work in Hawi [originally published 5/18/08, West Hawaii Today]

Posted: October 10, 2010 in Published Articles
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Sunday, May 18, 2008 7:35 AM HST

Many people find that Hawi offers a perfect blend of sunshine, cool trade winds and a laid-back lifestyle. Driving down Akoni Pule Highway, meticulously manicured lawns front rustic, plantation-style homes. Along with a mixed plate of businesses, there are churches and schools.

There is a sense of entering a special place that has somehow managed to retain the quaint charm and small town atmosphere, despite the influx of people moving in from the mainland or other parts of the state.

Hawi is in many ways a time capsule — an artifact of the way Hawaii used to be. When looking for a place where everyone in town knows one another, where there is no mail delivery service and most stores close at 6 p.m., then Hawi is where you want to go.

But if looking for work, it is best to look elsewhere.

Almost all of the businesses, at least the ones that can be seen lining both sides of the street in downtown Hawi, are owner operated. Most stores are manned, day in and day out, by their respective owners.

Such is the case with Maria Short, proprietor of Short – Sweet Bakery and Cafe in the Kohala Trade Center. Although she employs a staff of three, she still finds herself in the shop 50 to 60 hours a week.

“We were blessed from the outset of having a strong clientele base and unlike most restaurants who experience a two to three year stint getting out of the red, we were fortunate enough to start off in the black,” Short said.

She attributes most of that to the fact that her husband, Dean, does a lot of the construction and maintenance work himself. His help was key to the bakery’s initial renovation and kept building costs to a minimum.

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Kainani Bello works the checkout stand at Takata Store in Hawi. – Photo By Brad Ballesteros | Special To West Hawaii Today

Then there is Takata Store, arguably one of the largest and most successful businesses in Hawi. It employs between 35 to 38 people, a majority of them full time. Jobs range from stocking and bagging to running the registers. Many of the employees have been there for a long time, some from when the grocery store was located in the building that is now the home of the Bamboo Restaurant.

Teri Takata, operations manager, said the reason why there is such a low turnover is that once people get hired, they are considered part of the Takata ohana. Offering people jobs that are secure and giving full-time employees medical benefits and profit sharing, as well as keeping the atmosphere positive, has proven to be the recipe for keeping employees around for a while.

“(The job) needs to be fun. When the workers are enjoying themselves, it gets reflected in their attitude and their work,” Takata said.

Some people prefer that philosophy to what’s offered by working at one of the hotels, which some say are notoriously lacking in regards to flexibility and worker satisfaction, not to mention the commute.

Takata said some people are willing to take a cut in pay from working at one of the hotels if it means having a job closer to home with good benefits and a pleasant working environment. Currently, all of the people on staff live in Hawi or one of the nearby towns.

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Pookie Ah Sing works in the produce department of Takata Store. Here she fills bags with boiled peanuts. – Photo By Brad Ballesteros | Special To West Hawaii Today

For younger people looking for a first job, Takata Store is one of just a few places to find work. Shige’s service station and the Kohala Coffee Mill are other steady options.

If not planning to work in one of the above mentioned industries or opening a private business, jobs in Hawi are hard to come by. Even then, it may not be enough.

Pamela Gorman is a young mother who decided to quit her job at a local coffee shop to start Bizzy Beez child care service out of her home. She remodeled the downstairs of her house, obtained the proper licensing and is currently supervising four children. But with the rising cost of living, she has found that working a part-time job at the Kings’ Shops in Waikoloa was needed to supplement her income.

“It’s hard to find work in Hawi. Most of the places have workers that have been there forever, so there aren’t too many options,” she said when asked why she didn’t look for work locally.

Cindy Medeiros works for Kohala Elementary and Middle schools as a custodian and cashier. She averages more than 30 hours per week and, together with her husband’s income, said her family lives fairly well. Although she confesses with the rising cost of living, it’s still not enough. She has no time to work an additional job and the convenience of working in town far outweighs the need to find work elsewhere.

“I’m not driving to Waikoloa or Kona. No way,” she said.

Could it be that Hawi is becoming a bedroom community?

Not likely, for the fact that it already is one. Since the plantations closed, and the hotels began to pop up, people have been driving to where the jobs are. The fortunate few who get to live and work there consider themselves lucky.

Vernon Emeliano, head chef of the Bamboo Restaurant, also runs a yard service as a second source of income. Prior to running the kitchen, he worked two jobs down at one of the hotels, sleeping in his car between shifts. Although he now makes two to three times less than he did working as a valet, he wouldn’t have it any other way. He lives across the street from the restaurant. His commute is measured in steps, not miles.

“I’m blessed to live here,” he said.

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Meat cutter for Takata Store, Hana Akana, says he got his job after graduating from Kohala High School in 2000. – Photo By Brad Ballesteros | Special To West Hawaii Today

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