We all have them; you know, those things we call defining moments in our lives. I’ve had several, but the one that stands out most for me occurred in the Fall of 2012. I was asked to give a cooking demo at the local chapter of the Farmers Union on Maui. I said, “Sure, what would you like me to focus on?” The Farmers Union said, “How about breadfruit?” I thought, “OK, I know a little bit about that—heck, I had even eaten and cooked with breadfruit a few times.” Just so it sounded like I knew what I was talking about, however, I figured I better do a little research and experimentation.

I can’t really explain it, but for some reason the light just came on for me. I quickly realized what an amazing food breadfruit is. You see, it is one of the original canoe plants that the ancient Polynesian voyagers brought to Hawaii. It has been grown throughout the Polynesia as a staple food crop for many centuries. The tree itself has many uses, but the fruit is what is so amazing. When immature it is firm, very much like a potato. As it ripens it becomes soft, sweet, and deliciously aromatic. The trees are amazingly easy to grow, extremely high yielding, and are very tolerant to many types of growing conditions. Sadly, it has become a neglected food here in Hawaii, but I was determined to change this. I am convinced that breadfruit has more potential to address food security than does any other crop in Hawaii, where we import about 90% of what we eat. Developing our local small-chain food supply is truly essential in overcoming this staggering figure.

Breadfruit
Breadfruit (L) and John’s business partner Maile (R)

So, with my newfound passion for this forgotten fruit, I began experimenting and making all kinds of delicious things using breadfruit in both its starchy and sweet stages. Fast-forward about a year, and I had come up with a dessert that was nothing short of amazing—or so I was told. Naturally, the next step was to quit my secure and high-paying job and go into selling breadfruit pies. That was four years ago, and now Pono pies are sold on all four of the major Hawaiian Islands, at health food stores, and in some excellent restaurants. In Hawaiian, “Pono” means correct, beneficial, and done in the right way. I have tried to adhere to this principle in my business. One way is to source my ingredients locally. My breadfruit, sweet potatoes, bananas, honey, macadamia nuts, coconut, and coffee are all grown in Hawaii.

Pono pie
A slice of delicious Pono pie

One of the greatest unintended consequences of bootstrapping my business is that I can help other aspiring food entrepreneurs by renting out kitchen time at my factory. This is a win-win situation for everyone involved. Currently, there are no truly affordable options available to anyone who wants to develop a value-added product here on Maui. Presently, five fledgling companies use my kitchen space. Although I have watched at least that many companies start up only to shut down when the harsh realities of small-company food production became all too real, at least they didn’t have to make significant investments in building or leasing an entire kitchen to find this out. For my company, the additional income really helped in the early growth stages when cash flow is so crucial.

You see, I started the company with very little money. I believe that growing a company with as little debt as possible is the best way; but sometimes it is just not possible to expand without some financial assistance. That’s where Slow Money Hawaii came in. Previously, I had my labels printed locally in small batches at a cost of $0.31 per label. My printer told me that if I could order in bulk it could get the cost down to $0.06 per label, but that would require ordering at least 100,000 labels. Slow Money Hawaii connected me with some very supportive and enthusiastic community members who believe in breadfruit as much as I do. The very generous loan terms provided by Slow Money enable me to make the monthly payments and still increase my profit. I really hope that someday I will be able to return the favor and help other aspiring food entrepreneurs as a Slow Money lender.