Makaweli Poi faces an uncertain future after its owner, a corporate subsidiary of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) ordered the West Kauai mill to suspend operations May 23.
Mona Bernardino, chief operating officer of the corporation, Hiipoi LLC, says the move to shut down Makaweli Poi was prompted mainly by financial concerns.
But mill supervisor Bryna Storch says Bernardino’s management decisions, such as expanding to Oahu before the mill had sufficient taro to meet demand and failing to help West Kauai farmers boost production, worsened the company’s economic woes.
Though no mention was made about the mill’s future, in a May 4 “suspension of operations” memo sent to Makaweli Poi staff, Bernardino subsequently issued a statement saying “Hiipoi is in discussions with several community groups to consider taking over and resuming operations within a few weeks.”
Bernardino told the Weekly she had to set a specific date to cease operations under Hiipoi because the corporation intends to pay all outstanding debts before it’s turned over to a nonprofit organization.
Storch, however, questioned whether such a transition could occur quickly enough to keep the mill from suffering further financial distress.
Both Storch and John Aana, the firefighter and taro farmer who started Makaweli Poi and still serves as a consultant, think it makes more sense to continue operations during the summer, when demand and revenues are highest, while developing a community entity to take over the mill.
It will take time and money to restart the mill once it stops production, Storch says, and the shutdown risks alienating customers who’ve been loyal to the 20-year-old mill.
“It adds confusion, doubt and speculation to what was otherwise a very healthy and positive institution,” says Storch, who was brought in to handle daily operations after the previous manager, former OHA Trustee Kanani Perry, quit in frustration. “This will be the first time since [1992’s] Hurricane Iniki that poi won’t be produced.”
OHA Trustee Don Cataluna, who represents the island of Kauai, initiated the mill’s purchase four years ago when he heard Aana was looking to sell the business. Cataluna wanted to keep the mill in Hawaiian hands and support taro production on the island’s west side. Though demand for poi remains high, taro cultivation in the region has been waning in recent years as farmers retire and huli stock is lost.