Date night at an upscale restaurant: You delight in the local produce, Big Island beef or Maui lamb, crème brûlée made from local eggs and lilikoi from the chef’s backyard. And then you order coffee, expecting Waialua Estate or 100 percent Kona, only to discover that Illy Café or Lavazza is served.
While more and more restaurants pledge their commitment to serving Hawaii-sourced food, too many don’t offer local coffee, apart from a sparse 10-percent Kona blend. In a state that stakes a lot on the quality of Kona coffee, Oahu’s farm-to-table delivery falls a little short.
Yet there are more than 800 coffee farms across the state, 200–300 of which sell coffee under private labels. And while the Kona brand still casts its lure–and huge price tag–hooking tourists and locals alike, coffee is grown on five of theHawaiian Islands. Regions such as Waialua, Kau and Molokai show up more in grocery stores than on restaurant menus.
Luckily, some cafes have begun to feature at least one local coffee. Beach Bum Café, Downtown Coffee and Gorilla in the Café only serve Hawaiian coffee.
Fred Hokada, owner and roaster at Downtown Coffee on Fort Street, points to a lack of roasters seeking out restaurant accounts. Hokada has taken the lead in that vein, roasting for restaurants such as Salt and 12th Ave Grill as well as several local cafes. Oahu has several commercial roasting operations, including Koko Krater, the Coscina Brothers and Hawaiian Gourmet Coffee Roasters. Many farms also roast their own coffee onsite for retail and wholesale purchases.
Not all of these coffee roasters specialize exclusively in Hawaiian coffee, but restaurants have the flexibility to work on custom blends that can feature local beans. Or they can follow Alan Wong’s lead, creating an entire coffee menu showcasing the best in Hawaiian coffees. “We proudly serve . . . excellent Kau coffee brands, including Lorie Obra’s Rusty’s Coffee and Grace and Will Tabios’s Will and Grace Farms,” writes Wong in his cookbook, The Blue Tomato.
It would help if other restaurants could commit to even one local coffee farm’s beans.
Price is usually touted as the limiting factor, but according to Derek Lanter of Waialua Estate Coffee and Chocolate, restaurants choose to serve non-local coffee because distributors provide them with free coffee-making equipment. But if restaurants have their own equipment, the price of each individual cup may only increase by 20 to 40 cents with a local coffee, compared to imported. While most Hawaii coffee farms are in the Kona region, where they can command top dollar, up-and-coming regions often offer their beans for a lower price. There are also large farms that keep costs down by selling larger volumes, such as Waialua Estate, MauiGrown Coffee, Molokai’s Coffees of Hawaii or the 3,000-acre Kauai Coffee Company.
Which restaurants miss the mark? While Ed Kenney’s Town restaurant has been a stalwart of local cuisine, it only serves Stumptown Coffee from Portland.
At Vino, another top establishment sourcing from local farms, you get Illy Café.
A light in the dark: Stage Restaurant is now serving Kona Geisha, grown by Big Island farmer Eddie Sakamoto–but only by request. The rest is Illy.
Danny Kaaialii, co-owner of Salt, chose to serve local coffee because “it fits with our ethos. We really go to greater lengths to provide local ingredients.” That means capitalizing on Hawaii’s fortunate ability to grow coffee in the first place. “This can’t be said for a lot of places,” Kaaialii points out.
Salt is proud of its relationship with Downtown Coffee Roasters. “[Hokada] is someone who loves coffee,” Kaaialii says.
Or as Hokada puts it, “People in Hawaii should drink Hawaiian coffee, yeah?”