When you think of Hawaiian coffee, Kona is the first thing to come to mind. But that’s only the beginning. Big Island Coffee Roasters is telling the rest the story. The Hawaiian coffee roaster sells exclusively coffees grown within state limits, including Puna, Ka’u, Maui, Waialua, and yes, Kona.

With their new cafe in Hilo, Big Island Coffee Roasters is celebrating the entirety of their island bounty. They worked with industry vets John Letoto and Bethany Hargrove to create an exciting menu befitting their stunning cafe. And more than just coffee, Big Island has a commitment to building community and uplifting those around them. We spoke with Big Island’s Daniella Totaro to learn more.

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The 2023 Build-Outs of Coffee is presented by DONA. The 2023 Build-Outs of Coffee is sponsored by La MarzoccoPacific Barista SeriesAcaia, and Marco Beverage Systems.

As told to Sprudge by Daniella Totaro.

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For those who aren’t familiar, will you tell us about your company?

Big Island Coffee Roasters started out in 2010, with two young coffee lovers who found a disheveled coffee farm in a jungled region of Hawai’i posted for sale on Craigslist. Up to this point, we assumed Hawaiian coffees were categorically awful because we only knew of them as artificially flavored, stale, souvenir 10% blends. As we integrated with the community of farmers and sampled coffees from around Hawai’i, we were incredibly delighted by the unique varieties and the promising quality that went unnoticed.

Fast forward to 2013 and Big Island Coffee Roasters came to life, built on a mission to foster Hawai’i’s intergenerational coffee economy for the people and land. Today, Big Island offers authentic, quality Hawaiian coffees that are ripe harvested, milled in small batches, roasted-to-order, and shipped worldwide from our farm and roastery that’s powered by renewable energy. Our coffees are served at Four Seasons Hualalai, Mauna Lani Auberge, Hideout at Laylow Hotel, Pronghorn Resort in Bend, Oregon, and more.

We source from 27 local farmers and over the past few years, our purchases of specialty Kona and Hawaiian coffees has put over $7M directly into the hands of local farmers. This year, we were named one of Hawaii’s Fastest Growing Companies by Pacific Business News.

Can you tell us a bit about the new space?

Our first-ever public facility is a 4,000-square-foot cafe and roastery is located on the scenic coastline in the historic town of Hilo, HI, across the street from a hotspot simply known as “ponds”—a salt water pool infamous with locals. The cafe is also conveniently situated close to nearby hotels and cruise ships ports in the Keaukaha community.

Born of a desire to showcase specialty Hawaiian coffees served by expert baristas, visitors can also enjoy Hawaiian coffees served on nitro, iced Māmaki tea, and merchandise designed by Hawaiian artists, while viewing coffee roasting on a custom-designed, renewable energy-powered roaster.

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Outside of serving quality coffees and other specialty drinks, our goal with the space is to create a place for community gatherings, as well as to serve as a centralized point for education around Hawaiian coffee and cultivation. The opening of our cafe marks a major milestone for our team and we are eager to engage directly with customers for the first time. One feature we’re really excited about sharing is our viewing window, which connects our cafe to the roastery, inviting visitors to watch the roasting process while sipping on their favorite drink.

The grand opening will be held from August 12 at August 18 at 76 Kalanianaole Street in Hilo, Hawai’i.

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What’s your approach to coffee?

Quality, sustainability, and community are at the core of everything we do. These principles are carried through in our approach to coffee; using sustainable processes for coffee production and working directly with local producers, constantly learning together to feature the highest quality coffees Hawai’i offers.

We believe in knowing our farmer partners on an intimate level and building trust with them around the shared knowledge that coffee is a living, breathing thing. Together, through partnership, we work hard to offer seasonal coffees throughout the year. Some of our favorites include Ka’ū Yellow Bourbon and Ka’ū Giant Maragogipe. Our coffee menu also includes traditional and heritage coffees like Kona Peaberry and Maui Mokka, as well as unique and rare varieties like Gesha and SL34.

Any machines, coffees, special equipment lined up?

Our team has been crafting a menu of specialty drinks made with local ingredients, including Hawaii-grown chocolate and vanilla, house made syrups, and our freshly roasted 100% Hawaiian-grown coffee. We’ll offer a variety of signature drinks like the Honu, which features espresso, chocolate, caramel, and milk, with a touch of Hawaiian sea salt. We will also be featuring a rotating specialty micro-lot on drip each month; for opening month (August) we’ll have Ka’ū Maragogipe available.

The pride and joy of our new roastery is our custom designed brass and teal San Franciscan roaster. This beauty outputs 300lb of roasted coffee per hour. We have an Aurelia Wave espresso machine from Simonelli that our baristas will be pulling shots on. Additionally, we’ve added two Ground Control coffee brewers that we’ll be using for cold brew and specialty drip, and lastly, we’ll have two Victoria Arduino Mythos grinders.

How is your project considering sustainability?

With sustainability as one of our core pillars, we consider not only environmental impacts, but also agriculture, Hawaiian tradition and cultural sustainability.

Coffee is not a traditional crop in Hawai’i, and has commonly been viewed as something that foreigners farm and drink. Yet, the likeness of Native Hawaiians have long been misappropriated by coffee companies and the tourism industry in Hawaii. It’s further seeded distrust that many Hawai’i coffee companies—and the Hawai’i coffee industry—had operated using legacy corporate models and excluded Hawaiians, females, and minorities from holding influential roles.

Ironically, both the specialty coffee culture and Hawaiian culture are deeply rooted in community, yet specialty coffee culture is relatively unknown by Hawaiians.

We’re not only committed share the community values of the specialty coffee industry with locals, but to ensure the sustainability of Hawaiian teachings and traditions by incorporating Hawaiian principals into our HR practices, staff education, and community partnerships.

Doing this further aligns with our mission to protect land from development and enable farm sustainability.

To this end we:
Maintain top-down team and leadership diversity:
– Founders & Leadership Team is comprised of: 60% Female, 20% Hawaiian
– Total Staff: 70% Female, 15% Hawaiian, 20% Other Minority

Advisorship diversity: Our lead advisors and investors are (1) Kamehameha Schools Sustainability Fund, whose mission is to champion Native Hawaiian learners and advancement (2) Mana Up Fund, whose mission is to grow female and Native Hawaiian entrepreneurs.

Employ a Cultural Community Manager
We maintain a Hawaiian internship program 50% of the year and are aiming for 100% year-round intern program by 2024

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What’s your hopeful target opening date/month?

Saturday, August 12 (Opening week: August 12 – August 18)

Are you working with craftspeople, architects, and/or creatives that you’d like to mention?

Yes! We teamed up with Honolulu based District Architecture & Design to bring our vision to life. To say owner Rachel Pfister was fantastic would be an understatement; she was a joy to work with and was meticulous at every step. We also partnered with local Big Island company, Stan’s Contracting, for the buildout. They were a dream team and worked to the bitter end to get every detail right. Lastly, we worked with Hawaiian artists Mālie Mizuguchi and Keanu Wilson to design a lineup of limited edition NotNeutral mugs decorated with Hawaiian flora and fauna. Lastly, our employee John Letoto, who is a former WBC technical judge, crafted our drink menu and is training the barista staff to serve specialty coffee at a high level.

Thank you!

Big Island Coffee Roasters is located at 76 Kalanianaole Street, Hilo. Visit their official website and follow them on Instagram.

The 2023 Build-Outs of Coffee is presented by DONA. The 2023 Build-Outs of Coffee is sponsored by La MarzoccoPacific Barista SeriesAcaia, and Marco Beverage Systems.