Kauai Kookies spice up Hawaiian exports

Well before dawn each morning, Dewey Kobawashi arises and is soon stirring up what he considers to be a secret family recipe to make his special kind of Maui potato chips. And over on the island of Kauai, Mabel K. Hashisaka oversees output of cookies, papaya seed salad dressing, and other exotic food products for the Kauai Kookie Kompany.

In Honolulu, Bill Foster Sr. checks out production of colorful dresses, skirts, and tops turned out by his workers at Malia International.

All these activities, and hundreds more, are part of a growing segment of the Hawaiian economy - food processing and light manufacturing. The state's Department of Planning and Economic Development estimates the value of their combined output to be running about $200 million a year and increasing steadily.

That volume puts such production up there in importance with pineapple, which last year generated sales of $210 million, and sugar, with sales of $327 million. Unlike either of those two agricultural products, however, such manufacturing is carried out by hundreds of small companies, many literally just family enterprises.

Still, their combined efforts please government officials, who sometimes worry about the state's dependence on tourism, which faces increasing competition from other destinations, and on agriculture, which is already slipping each year in value and importance.

Until quite recently, however, most products made in Hawaii were intended for sale to visitors. Such items as the often-garish aloha shirts for men, long muumuu dresses for women, and coral or seashell jewelry.

Those items are still turned out, of course, but a trend has started in the past two years that promises to expand this lucrative but limited market.

A growing number of enterprising manufacturers and food processors are looking to markets on the mainland of the United States and to foreign countries. Foster's women's apparel, for example, is now airfreighted almost entirely to the mainland; when he went into business, he sold perhaps 90 percent of what he made within a few miles of his shops.

As things stand now, the biggest potential for ''overseas'' sales of made-in-Hawaii goods rests with the fashion industry. Jesse Goodman of the Fashion Guild of Hawaii here sees his industry as going far beyond those gaudy sport shirts. ''We don't manufacture Hawaiian fashions,'' he says. ''We make clothing that is fashionable in Hawaii, that reflects the life style of this place but may be worn anywhere in the world.''

There are now perhaps 100 companies in Hawaii engaged in some facet of apparel manufacturing, ranging from tiny shops turning out T-shirts with stenciled mottos to fancier facilities producing costly high-fashion gowns that can hold their own against any couturier. The wholesale value of this segment of the manufacturing sector is perhaps $100 million, employing perhaps 3,500 locals.

Food processing is now running second to the garment industry, according to Harolyn Fukuda, president of the Hawaii Food Manufacturers Association. Three years ago her association was started with 10 members; today there are 50 in its ranks and perhaps 100 who aren't.

They turn out everything from candies, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, papaya juices, cookies, Kona coffee, fresh fish and prawns, jams, fresh taro, and Hawaiian sweetbread to traditional Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Portuguese food specialties.

For now most of this output is still sold locally, with many items taken back home by visitors. But the potential for export sales is there. As proof, a supermarket promotion of distinctively Hawaiian products was carried out in California last spring with matching funds from the Hawaiian Department of Planning and Economic Development. It produced an impressive response. One order alone for the potato chips offered by Walter M. Atebara from Hilo, Hawaii, forced him to hire 20 additional workers. The cartons of chips filled nine sea containers and generated a gross that probably exceeded what Atebara usually sells in three years.

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