HawaiiWritten by Jason Ubay On 14 August 2013
How Kau Coffee Started

John T. Hays, the executive director of Paragon Group Worldwide and co-founder of Coffees of Hawaii, called and sent me this letter after reading our story on Kau coffee, which appeared in the July 2013 issue of Hawaii Business. (Editor’s note: The letter has been edited for style and context.)

Since coffee has been a substantial part of my life, and especially the coffee now growing in the southernmost part of our country is a part of my history in Hawaii, I am pleased to relate to you how that particular plantation came about.

Thirty years ago, my Brazilian partner, Antonio Mansor, and I stopped in Honolulu on our way to a one-month sojourn in Hong Kong and Taiwan, on a mission for the Paraguayan president. A significant number of Chinese had expressed interest in emigrating prior to the integration of Hong Kong into China, and Paraguay had offered them citizenship and agricultural land in order to settle in that country.

In 1983, I had only modest experience in the coffee industry, but had been to Hawaii numerous times, while Antonio had a quarter century of coffee experience but had never been to the Islands. We arrived here and checked into our hotel on a Thursday evening, looking forward to a night’s sleep. We planned on visiting Bank of Hawaii’s President, H. Howard Stephenson, on Friday morning to talk about Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Upon checking in, we found a note from Stephenson advising us that he couldn’t see us until the following Monday, which I recall was Aug. 1st, Antonio’s birthday. On one hand, we had plans to fly to Hong Kong on Saturday and did not want to delay our mission, but on the other, the prospect of getting some rest and relaxation was appealing, and I looked forward to showing Antonio some of Oahu’s agricultural lands. We decided to stay in Honolulu until the following Tuesday.

The next four days changed our lives.

On Friday, we stayed near the hotel and organized our trip to Hong Kong. On Saturday, I rented a car and drove us up the middle of the island via Kunia Road. At one point, among the sugarcane and pineapple fields, Antonio asked me to stop the car. I did so, and he got out, picked up some soil, sniffed it, even tasted it, and got back in the car, looking like a cat that had swallowed the tastiest of canaries.

Antonio asked me, “How much frost do you get here?” I reminded him that I did not live here, but told him there was no frost below 7,000 feet. The question and answer session lasted all the way to Haleiwa, at which point Antonio knew essentially all I then knew about the ages of the islands, the soil types and depths and the variations in rainfall. His enthusiasm was growing.

Finally he declared, “This is the largest coffee consuming country in the world. There are virtually ideal growing conditions here. So why are they wasting this land on pineapple and sugarcane?” I replied, “Tradition, I suppose. Let’s ask Howard Stephenson on Monday morning.” Talk during the remainder of our drive around the island centered on coffee, as did our dinner that evening with friends from Paraguay.

On Monday morning, Howard Stephenson quickly learned that Antonio, having lived 21 years in Paraguay, spoke fluent Spanish, which Stephenson had learned in a New York trading company.  So they began a conversation at one end of the president’s office, while I sat at the other end talking about Hong Kong and Taiwan with Bank of Hawaii’s experts. After an hour, they were dismissed, and I was summoned to the Spanish end.

We made clear to Stephenson that the main reason large coffee plantations had not been undertaken in Hawaii was the high cost of labor, but solutions existed. After a major killer frost in 1975, Brazil had developed harvesting machines for coffee and its coffee industry had moved north to areas with extensive flat land, but provided insufficient labor for hand picking.

Howard Stephenson in turn informed us of the inefficiencies of the sugar and pineapple industries in the state, and the fact that the large agricultural companies (the Big Five) had created their own competition by planting in countries with low cost labor.

Our conversation with the bank president concluded with a challenge and a commitment. If we returned to Hawaii to start a large-scale, mechanized coffee plantation, Bank of Hawaii would back us. I returned later in 1983 from a new base in California, moved to Hawaii in January of 1984, and on February 13th of that year, Antonio Mansor, my wife Susan, and I started Coffees of Hawaii, Inc.

The years 1984 and 1985 were devoted to raising funds and scouting the major islands for locations to plant. By mid-1986, we had decided on a location – Molokai, which was not controlled by the Big Five and which offered good soil, climatic conditions and water supply. We signed a contract with Molokai Ranch in the second half of 1986 and began operations soon thereafter. In 1989, we were invited by the Robinson family of Niihau to plant coffee on that island, but otherwise our operations were dedicated to the planting of 700,000 coffee trees, installation of an irrigation system, purchasing and special order of machinery, adaptation and construction of a processing and roasting plant, and finally, the launch of a coffee bar and gift shop.

During our time of exploration and fact-finding, I met the CEOs and many corporate executives of the Big Five companies and other agricultural and food processing companies. Virtually all were interested in finding out what we knew, taking as many of our ideas as they could, while paying us as little as possible, and then doing coffee in whatever ways their sugarcane and pineapple training dictated. We politely but firmly rejected all these offers and decided to do it ourselves.

One exception to the “Do it our way” crowd was the CEO of C. Brewer & Company, J.W.A. “Doc” Buyers. Doc and I established rapport from the outset, and during our undecided times, he suggested we look at doing joint ventures with C Brewer on Kauai and Maui.

Doc Buyers

We very nearly did accept his proposal for southwestern Kauai, but when I went over to meet with their people, I also met with Gay & Robinson sugar company, and it was then when I first visited Niihau, and saw the potential of the deepest topsoil in the major Hawaiian islands.

However, in late 1985 or early 1986, Doc Buyers called me and asked me if we had seen all of the Big Island we wanted to see. I told him yes, saying, “We found too much rainfall on the Hamakua Coast, too many surface rocks in the Puna area, and in Kona, far too much irregularity in elevation, rainfall, soil conditions, not to mention 700 existing small farms [800 today], most of which could never be mechanized and at least 50 different genetics.” Doc Buyers was unfazed. “I want to show you Kau. I think you may get a different impression.”

Shortly thereafter Doc accompanied Antonio and me, and we walked the Kau plateau together. We noted the uniformity of the land, the elevation, the rainfall and the excellent soil. Antonio remarked that it was similar to what we found on Molokai. We encouraged Doc Buyers to plant coffee there, and we stayed in touch as the project began. I am sorry to say that Antonio and Doc are no longer around to see the results of our walk on that day.

Three generations of Hayses. The author is on the left.

John Hays at the Great Wall of China, circa 1987.

Photos courtesy of John Hays.

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About Author

Managing Editor, Hawaii Business magazine. He's also representing the mag on Facebook and Twitter at @hawaiibusiness. You can follow him on Twitter at @jubay.

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