During the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Top Hat Bar in Wahiawa was hit. It closed for three days and reopened on Dec. 10, 1941 with the charging mantra that its doors would never be closed again. And the bar stayed open seven days a week, year-round, until early 2009, when it shut down for good.
Surfing The Nations (STN), a nonprofit organization, purchased the building and moved in. They opened Surfers Coffee Bar in the summer of 2011 after cleaning decades of nicotine off the walls. A bigger challenge was the neighborhood.
This block of Kamehameha Highway was considered by many to be the center of sex, drugs and violence on the North Shore. Neighboring businesses included porn shop Divine Pleasures, liquor store Market 88 and exotic dancing venue Club Texas. For most, it was an area to avoid. “We learned real quick that we lived in the bad part of town,” recalls STN co-founder Cindy Bauer as she looks out the window from the plush seats of the coffee bar. “This was where no one wanted to wander.”
STN, founded in 1997, had been looking for a place to call home after a series of rental situations fell through. The 15-unit, three-story apartment building behind the old, rundown bar in Wahiawa looked like a perfect place to house their staff, and they could use the bar for a meeting room.
“We knew this was going to be a rough neighborhood, [but it] seemed to work for us because we are for those who are voiceless and the at-risk youth here on the street,” Bauer says. STN feeds more than 3,000 people a week, most of them working poor. “Maybe three percent are homeless but a vast majority are households working hard to make it,” she adds. STN also tutors at-risk youth three times a week.
The block was such an eyesore that for years, parents told their kids to “look forward, don’t look over there,” Bauer says. When Leilehua High School students came down to hand out food for a school project, they told the STN staff that not one of them had ever walked on that side of the street before.
The Giving Surfer
STN thought they’d try to improve the neighborhood, and in less than a year, the owners of the neighboring buildings had agreed to sell. The nonprofit put its first building up as collateral, held a huge fundraiser for a down payment and purchased the rest of the block. “We were just the new kids on the block that weren’t smart enough to know we couldn’t do it,” Bauer says. “Sometimes, when you don’t realize you can’t, you do it.”
At present, Surfers Coffee Bar is the only open business on the block. The original bar from the 1930s remains in a spacious room filled with plush armchairs and tables, with a desk area where one could do some writing or read without feeling distracted. The walls are decorated like a surf museum with eponymous memorabilia and art, thanks to STN co-founder Tom Bauer’s enthusiasm for the sport. “Our motto is ‘surfers giving back,’” he says.
“Surfers in my day were takers, but today we’re trying to market them as givers,” Bauer says, adding that he hopes the coffee shop also helps to remarket Wahiawa. “Since it is the gateway to the North Shore, we feel that Wahiawa has an amazing responsibility,” he says, “[and] surfers have the responsibility to make this a better place.”
STN’s goal is to bring community-centered businesses into the six available storefronts on the block; Chaminade University’s design school is planning parking and gardens for the buildings.
Surfers Coffee Bar’s menu practices what STN preaches by supporting local business. It carries organic Kona Estate coffee ($2–$3 a cup). All espresso shots and drinks are made from Waialua Estate coffee beans, grown and harvested on Oahu’s North Shore and roasted in Honolulu. This totally local coffee fuels the menu’s latte ($3–$4), Americano ($2.40–$3.10), cappuccino ($3) and mocha ($3.50–$4.60) drinks. Try the “Wahiawa Mocha,” flavored with coffee, white chocolate and pineapple. Get it hot, on the rocks or blended–this caffeine addict highly recommends the last.
Bagels ($1.99), muffins ($1.95) and cookies (89 cents) are available as partners in caffeine crime, but they are not house-made and taste generic. A refreshing alternative is the acai bowl ($7.95), made from packets of frozen Tambor acai berry puree, frozen bananas and apple juice or soy milk and topped with granola, honey and freshly sliced bananas. Macadamia nuts, chocolate, strawberries, pineapple and papaya are an additional 50 cents each. Fruit smoothies are $3–$4, and a wide variety of Hawaiian teas, including organic, are served iced or hot ($2–$3).
The bar hosts open mic nights Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and live music on Fridays at 7 p.m., featuring bands from Hawaii and around the world. Cindy Bauer envisions a community center and commercial kitchen on the property one day so that kids can learn career skills.
STN started with one building and a meeting room that turned into a coffee shop. Now that shop has the whole block a-changin’. Police have told the Bauers that crime in the area has dropped. The fast food restaurants in the area have remodeled. Cindy Bauer says she hopes the old Club Texas space will be filled by a higher-end restaurant. Nearby California Avenue was recently repaved, something for which the neighborhood board had fought for more than 13 years. Gentrification, surfer style, is in the air–and it smells like coffee.