Mana Foods Plans Extensive Renovations in Paia
By Susan Halas
Mana Health Foods, Inc. – the long running natural foods grocery and health products store in Paia – plans extensive renovation, according to store manager Theresa Thielk.
The sprawling establishment, which began in 1983 as a 400 square foot juice bar with a single worker, now has 110 employees. It has expanded over the years into an eclectic assortment of adjoining buildings and property.
Thielk said improvements to all areas will begin as soon as county permit processing is completed.
Upgrades include a face-lift for the store’s street frontage, all new refrigeration, as well as improvements to kitchen, office, bakery and storage areas. She anticipates the upgrades will be conducted in phases over a two year period. The store to remain open during construction. August Percha is the architect for the planned renovations.
Thielk credited Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa with helping facilitate the permit process for parking on nearby vacant land. That area is now provides almost a hundred stalls for shoppers in Paia.
Looking back on the history of Mana Foods, Thielk recalled that things haven’t always been easy: “My brother Edward started this all alone. He got up at four in the morning to juice the carrots and make the sandwiches,” she said. “I came over from San Francisco to help out.”
In addition to the sister-and-brother team, other owners of the corporation include Carol Fenn and Christine Ozee.
“In those days, in fact for a very long time, we had no money at all. But my brother believed in natural foods and slowly the people came. What did it for us was sheer perseverance. Our uncle got us a $2,000 loan for inventory. We were vegetarians, we believed in the philosophy. Though we’re not vegetarians any more, we still believe in eating healthy.”
Thielk remembers the small space where they started vividly, but she was not exactly sure of the actual size of the store today. Indeed it would be hard to measure the space which twists, turns and winds around several levels. Behind the scenes, it is filled with nooks and oddball storage areas.
In the front retail area the ceilings are high and the shelves are packed to the rafters. They display a wide array of packaged foods and fresh produce (much of it organic), quality meats and dairy products. The store also has its own bakery and deli and a separate area for vitamins, health supplements and natural cosmetics.
Mana Foods customers come from all over the island. Many are from Paia and Haiku, but they also have shoppers from Lahaina, Kihei and Upcountry.
“We might have celebrities in the store like actors Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson. At the same time you’ll see a local dentist or employees from the Paia Bank of Hawaii branch pushing a shopping cart down the same aisle.”
“We work hard to keep our prices affordable, especially compared to other natural foods stores. Just like all grocery stores our margins are slim and a lot of our products are perishable.”
“We’re pretty picky with all the products we stock,” she said, “there’s no MSG and no corn syrup.”
Produce is one of her favorite departments – fresh and locally grown. “We carry a wide assortment of fruit, some of it is exotic; that always get the attention of the visitor.” The deli has hot and cold food. Some favorites are the baked tofu and the natural kalua pig made from organic free-range pork. “We try to have a different selection every day.”
Customers like Steven Bard agree with her. “I’ve been coming here for 20 years” said the part-time Kuau resident. He was in the deli ordering a pasta salad to-go. He especially likes the sea food. ” The ono and mahi mahi are good,” he said. “The Thai noodles are also a favorite.” In his opinion, “It’s all good.”
“I knew we were growing, ” Thielk said, “but I wasn’t sure we’d really turned the corner until about 2004.” Over the years Mana Foods has been approached to open additional stores in nearly every part of the island. “We came pretty close to having a second outlet in Kula 2006, but by the time we were ready to start it cost way too much.”
As for competition, “Initially the store took quite a hit when Whole Foods opened in Kahului. But now,” she said, “we’re fully recovered and then some.”
“Our place has kind of a funky appeal. I guess you could call it karma, or you could say we have a personality. People from all over the world come here. They write about us in lots of different languages, including Japanese.”
Looking into the future she doesn’t see a strong recovery coming, “but fortunately,” she added, “we’re selling necessities. People have to eat.”