Acai bowls to satisfy your ‘ono
Ka Wai Ola, July 2017
By Treena Shapiro
At Mo ‘Ono Hawai‘i, an acai bowl food truck on Maui, you can get your acai topped with papaya or served in a papaya.
“We make custom acai bowls to everyone’s ‘ono, or everyone’s craving,” says Toni Matsuda, co-owner of Mo ‘Ono. “We have liliko‘i butter, we have mango, we have blueberries, we have peanut butter – that’s my favorite.”
The wide array of toppings is a good way to get a taste of Maui. Ku‘ulei Hanohano, the other half of the 100 percent wähine-owned business, notes that most of the fresh ingredients are locally sourced. “We purchase a lot of our fruits from different local vendors and hit up a lot of farmer’s markets, especially in the central area,” she says. They buy their poi directly from kalo farmers: Ola Mau Farms, in Waihe‘e, and Nohana Farms in Waikapü.
Hanohano, 27, and Matsuda, 25, both Kamehameha Schools Maui graduates, started thinking about an acai bowl business back in high school because the frozen, fruit-topped concoctions could be found all over O‘ahu but almost nowhere on Maui. In college, they brought their idea to life, making and delivering acai bowls to friends and family.
“It all started as a side cash thing,” explains Hanohano. “We were both going to college, with typical college lives, pretty broke, not much funds,” describes Hanohano. “It pretty much got us through college and once we had both graduated, we decided to take it on full-time.”
While a brick and mortar shop is the goal, starting out as a food truck made more sense. “At the time, food trucks were pretty big so it seemed like the perfect solution to start a small business, especially with just two people and little funds,” says Matsuda.
Their current food truck is a relatively recent acquisition. They started using it to sell their acai bowls back in January, at a food truck park at 591 Haleakala Highway. Prior to that, they had been using a trailer that Hanohano’s cousin built for them and Matsuda’s father outfitted with electricity and plumbing. The 5-foot by 10-foot trailer was cramped but they did the best they could, saving until they were able to expand. “Our product really took off,” says Hanohano. “We needed facilities and equipment to keep up with the demand.”
The Mo ‘Ono owners had their eyes on a used food truck they saw advertised on Craigslist but the asking price was far out of their reach. They tried applying for a bank loan but were turned down for being too young and too inexperienced. OHA’s Mälama Loan Program, however, which supports Native Hawaiian entrepreneurs, approved them for a low-interest $20,000 loan. They used half of it as a down payment for the food truck – the sellers were willing to accept payment in installments – and the rest to buy commercial grade equipment to accommodate their growing customer base.
Neither Matsuda or Hanohano studied business in college – Matsuda’s bachelor’s degree is in social work, Hanohano’s in education and peace and conflict resolution. But neither has any regrets about their course of study, or about starting Mo ‘Ono from scratch. “Nobody in my family is a business owner. Now I know business owners, but there was no model for us to go after in our family,” says Hanohano. “For us to be able to make things up as we go is hard, but it’s definitely rewarding.”
OHA’s Mālama Loan Program
“I think that people, especially Native Hawaiians, feel like small businesses are out of reach, that creating a business is out of reach, it’s not even possible,” says Ku‘ulei Hanohano, 27, the first business owner in her family. “You don’t even think about it.”
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, however, encourages Hawaiians to become entrepreneurs with low-interest loans up to $20,000 and 7-year terms. While a regular bank turned down the Mo ‘Ono owners’ loan application, OHA surprised them with quick approval.
“For me, the main part is we get to work for ourselves,” Hanohano says. “It’s way longer hours and it’s really stressful, but it’s a good stress and I love doing it because it’s for ourselves, it’s 100 percent from scratch and just us.”