Waimea Town Market celebrates four years
BY CATHERINE TARLETON
SPECIAL TO NORTH HAWAII NEWS
Four years ago, Waimea farmer Paul Johnston and family planted the seeds for what would bloom and grow into a thriving Waimea Town Market, every Saturday morning at Parker School.
More than 30 different vendors create a festival-like gaiety, rain or shine, as shoppers meander to pick up the week’s fruits and veggies, artisan breads and other tasty things, even quail eggs. Hungry market-goers enjoy waffles, Thai food, Mexican cuisine, wheatgrass shots, smoothies, coffee, tea and more. Others shop for handcrafted items, peruse plants and flowers, have a massage, sometimes get a carwash, or spend time talking story.
“I buy 20-seed bread from the baker, cherry turnovers, tomatoes over there, the red and yellow organic peppers, and wheatgrass,” said Barb Beham-Scarth of Waimea, a regular customer, happily munching on a toasted BLT with local-made bacon. “I go to the other market first, early, because there are certain produce vendors I like to buy from over there. Then I come here and ‘walaau’ for two or three hours and then have lunch.”
“It’s a blast,” said Johnston, market manager and member of the steering committee. “All my life I’ve done things like this and it’s a lot of fun. And it’s really, really gratifying to see people come and sit and enjoy the market—folks in town, visitors from around the island, tourists from all over the world. I love the sense of community that’s developed in and around the market.”
Johnston said he and sister-in-law Betsy were driving back from Hilo when the farmers market idea sparked. Once home, they shared the brainstorm with wife Susan Sanderson, who suggested a proposal to Parker School.
“First, we called the other market,” said Johnston. Waimea Hawaiian Homestead Farmers Market (WHHFM) had been operating since 1993 and reached near-capacity. “We asked ‘does this mean Waimea is ready for another market?’” said Johnston.
It was no problem for WHHFM.
“My view at the time was that the oil companies don’t put gas stations across from each other without a reason,” said Johnston. “Everybody does better if they’re at the same corner … It’s marketing science that they figured out many, many years ago.”
They prepared a formal plan for Parker School, who expressed interest right away—after they too contacted WHHFM.
“The psychology of a space is an issue,” said Johnston. “Here, you can sit and see the mountains; it’s accessible by walking; it’s just a lovely space in town.”
The Johnston ohana, baker Kevin Cabrera of Sandwich Isle Bread Co., Alice Humbert of Island Herbal, Woody Young of Sunrise Farms (who often plays music for the market) and a few others came together and decided to go for it, on Sept. 13, 2008.
“We were very small, just one little row,” said Humbert, a 30-year island resident, originally from Canada, selling her all natural body products and elegant herbal remedies. “Now, people drive from Kona; they plan on having breakfast; plan for more of an event than just shopping … Once they get it, that it’s a really an authentic farmers/artisan market, I think that’s key to why people keep coming back.”
John App, from Captain Cook, is a former combat pilot-turned mortgage banker, who now creates “artistic woodwork with soul” in koa, mango, lychee and more, displayed with a sign “Free avocado with $1,400 purchase.” App has been featured in At Home magazine and others, and received numerous inquiries and contracts as a result of having a presence at the market.
“It’s my grandmother’s recipe,” said Wai Lin Duncan, who sells Sweet Nuts sugary baked pecans with her mother Cindy Benson.
While she was going to UH-Hilo, Duncan was waiting tables and wanted to do something different, so asked her mother if they could make some of the pecans for sale.
“We sold out in a couple of hours,” said Duncan. “And now we both bake.”
Since starting at the market two and a half years ago, Sweet Nuts has added macadamia nut toffee confections, using nuts from fellow vendor Ahualoa Farms.
“We’ve got a lot of regulars, and the nuts have been all over the world,” said Benson, “to Japan, Hong Kong, Germany, Ireland, to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Sweet Nuts has also contracted with ABC Stores and Alaska Airlines.
Markets “neighbors” Linda and Mike Watson of Ahualoa Farms came to Hawaii from Prescott, Ariz., in 2005, and have also been with the market for two and a half years. They grow macadamias for their multi-flavored sweet or savory mac nuts, and buy more from other small farms in Hamakua.
“We love this market. It has a nice vibe,” said Linda. “It’s a good place to come and hang out on a Saturday morning, and we’ve got a nice blend of tourists and locals.”
The original four flavors have grown to 12, including Linda’s favorite, Vanilla Ginger, and they’ll premier six new ones for the holidays. They’ve added coffee from their own trees, and the still-growing business now serves three farmers markets and 15 wholesale accounts.
“Fruitsicle lady” Lisa Erck mans the booth started by daughter Rosa at age 14 with some help from her sister Ruby and three recipes from friends in Canada. They improvised a bit, added flavors and kept it going for a time, then moved on, leaving Mom the business.
“It’s so fun,” said Erck. “It’s a very joyful business, spreading smiles, good food, local organic ingredients … I feel good about giving food to kids, the little ones, the bigger ones, the elderly ones, kids of all ages.”
“We love our market!” said Clare Bobo, who runs Island Thyme Gourmet with chef-husband Dan. “It’s such a community gathering place … Having a presence at the market gives our company a face and an opportunity to test new products like soup, smoked salmon, homemade pates and demi-glace, all done with local products.”
“Anchoring” the market are Johnston’s Kekela Farms rainbow fresh vegetables with piles of baskets for shoppers to fill. Beside them is Sandwich Isle Bread Company, where chefs Kevin and Kay Cabrera, daughter Morgan and their team stoke up the fire in their Panyol oven every week, and let the welcoming aroma of baking bread waft through the market. From the beginning, Sandwich Isle quickly won the hearts of Waimea and beyond, with recent accolades in “Hana Hou” and “Los Angeles Times.”
“We try to have a wide variety and not bring people to compete with each other,” said Johnston. “Our job as a steering committee is to foster all these small business and get them into a profitable mode.”
Waimea Town Market has proved profitable for Parker School as well, earning some $82,000 for the school to date.
“It’s been great for the school in a lot of ways,” said Parker School Headmaster Carl Sturges. “Financially, they’ve made the equivalent of two full scholarships, and the market does it all. We just provide the space … It also brings people to the school, onto the campus to see the place. We have had a couple of people who were new to the area, they visited the market, looked around and became interested in having their children go to the school.”
“I’d like to acknowledge the great job Paul Johnston has done,” said Sturges. “It’s a lot of work for him to organize all this. Obviously he’s got a great deal of aloha for the school, and we really appreciate it.”
The seeds planted four years ago have blossomed into something sustainable, something with a positive impact on individuals and community as a whole.
“I was pretty sure it would work,” said Johnston. “I figured we could get it to grow.”
Waimea Town Market at Parker School is open Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. (sometimes a bit later.) More information is available at www.waimeatownmarket.com.