Kitchen Startup

Maui’s new Food Innovation Center offers entrepreneurs recipes for success.

maui food innovators women
Clockwise from top left: Michelle Valentin pitches her tasty raw snacks to a panel of industry professionals. Dawn Anderson is exuberant about her bRaw energy bars. Lani Eckart-Dodd’s travel-sized, single-serving pouches are aptly named Holo ‘Ai, Poi on the Go. Guest speaker and Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce president Teri Freitas Gorman mentors the first cohort on how to pitch their products and themselves.

A new $7 million facility, slated to open in 2019, will feature manufacturing kitchens for wet and dry processing and packaging. “It’ll be open to entrepreneurs with a proven track record in the food community,” says Vicens. “You’ll pay an hourly rate [and] have access to all of our state-of-the-art equipment.” She hopes to see local chefs, farmers and ranchers also make use of the opportunity.

Overwhelmingly, women have shown the most interest in the Maui Food Innovation Center. The first MAP cohort had one male and eleven female students; the second had two males. “The entrepreneurs on Maui are women,” says Speere. “Even in the culinary school, it’s 70 percent women.”

Speere ran Maui Culinary Academy for many years, and witnessed the gender divide. “I think women have a natural affinity for culinary arts, but didn’t want the lifestyle.” The grueling schedule of working late nights, weekends, and holidays is enough to dissuade many aspiring chefs, particularly those with young children. “With your own business, you have a little more freedom.” Plus, says Speere, women bring different attributes to the workforce, creating a more nurturing, flexible and collaborative environment.

Fordyce, for example, applies everything she learned in education to her new venture. “I want to create opportunities so my students don’t have to leave [Maui],” she says.

Indeed, business incubators like MAP generate up to twenty times more jobs than other federally funded community infrastructure projects, according to the National Business Incubation Association. And Maui’s is the first food incubator in the state.

Technology may be the ticket to more efficient food manufacturing, but at its heart, the industry is about feeding people and nourishing communities. “For people in our cohort, ‘Made on Maui’ isn’t just a tagline,” says Fordyce. “It’s an ideal.”

The center’s latest offering, a Master Food Preservers course, taught students how to cure meats, make sausages, can jellies, ferment vegetables, and dehydrate fruits. The first iteration of this course was held on Moloka‘i, where cottage industries are a primary source of residents’ income.

Meanwhile, Waikapū Pickles is ramping up production. What’s next after it conquers Whole Foods? Fordyce laughs. “I want to be the pickle lady of Maui first. I’m not worried about Japan yet.”

This article is dedicated to Refugio Gonzales, faculty member and instrumental partner in the Maui Accelerator Program, who passed away in August. Gonzales was deeply admired and appreciated by everyone he touched.




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