Markets celebrate 25 years

LIHU’E — No one really knows the exact start date, but Bill Spitz said county officials with the Kaua’i Sunshine Markets will be celebrating their 25th anniversary this month.

Spitz, who administers the program from the county’s Office of Economic Development, said, “It started before I came in, but I think the first one was held at the (Wilcox) elementary school.

“Nancy Blaylock had a lot to do with it then,” Spitz said.

Since that time, about the only things that have changed are the growing numbers of customers at the eight sites around the island and, possibly, over the years, some locations.

In addition to the county program, Spitz noted that there are the private markets at Kukui Grove Center and Hanalei that also supplement the offerings to customers at the popular weekly gathering spots.

“I’m not the first, but I’m one of the old-timers,” said Ted Javellana of Moloa’a, catching his breath after the initial surge of customers at Vidinha Stadium Friday.

“It (the Sunshine Markets program) came at the right time. It was right after the papaya industry went sour, and Jo Ann (Yukimura) pushed the farmers’ market initiative,” Javellana said.

“I’m definitely not the first, but I’ve been here ever since.”

Javellana said he started selling at the markets in 1981, and today he visits the Lihu’e (Vidinha Stadium), Kapa’a (Kapa’a New Park), and Koloa (Anne Knudsen Park) markets.

However, his tomatoes and sweet onions may also be found at some of the other sites because he said he wholesales to some of the vendors who visit the sites he doesn’t.

“It’s been like this since the start,” he chuckled. Javellana had customers surging at the tailgate end of his pickup well before the 3 p.m. start time, and within five minutes of the starting whistle, his day’s offerings were gone.

“It’s like that every time,” he said. “I’ve gotta figure it out. The people in the front, they grab six, and the people in the back sometimes don’t get any. But, there’s nothing you can do, and the people, they love it.”

Meanwhile, further down the lane, Sandy Nonaka was hastily gobbling down a hamburger, oblivious of the growing number of customers that converged at the back of her dad’s pickup truck.

“It’s her lunch,” said Nicole Nonaka, a pastry chef at the Kaua’i Marriott Resort & Beach Club (when she’s not a farmer). “She’s been washing cucumbers all morning, and this is her lunch.”

“That’s how it is,” said Glenna Ueunten, another vendor. “You grab lunch when you can.”

The Nonaka children, Kell, Sandy, Hayley and Kai, have grown up in the environment of the Sunshine Markets.

“We started doing this right after we got married,” Dean Nonaka said. “That must’ve been about 12 years ago.”

Ueunten, who started selling at the Sunshine Markets in 1996, reflected on her own children’s growth at the Sunshine Market. “My son used to eat the cucumbers. I would tell him, ‘We need to save some for the salad tonight,’ but he would just continue eating.”

Following the initial surge, Sandy and Hayley Nonaka took advantage of the arrival of William “Coconut Bill” Rector to enjoy dessert: a fresh coconut, “with lime, please.”

Spitz said that, following the initial markets at the Wilcox Elementary School parking lot, the Lihu’e market relocated to the Kaua’i War Memorial Convention Hall parking lot before settling into its current location at the Vidinha Stadium parking lot.

Additionally, other markets opened up, Spitz said. The Kapa’a market opened in 1981, followed by Koloa in 1986, Kalaheo in 1989, Kekaha in 1990, Kilauea in 1993, Hanapepe in 1999, and the latest one, Wailua Homesteads, in 2003.

These markets were joined by the private markets hosted by those at Kukui Grove Center and in Hanalei, the encouragement to start private markets starting with Grove Farm officials in 2000, Spitz explained.

Initially, the Sunshine Markets generated $11,000 in revenues the first year, Spitz said. That sum reached $404,000 last year, with the top year being 2000 when sales peaked at $444,000, Spitz pointed out.

“It definitely has an economic impact on our island,” Spitz said. “The combination of the county and private markets has produced a thriving system, but it could be better.”

“For me, it’s a retirement income,” Javellana said. “A lot of them (the vendors) are semiretired, and for them, it supplements their personal income.

“I like it,” he said. “It gives me something else to do, and it’s great for meeting the public.”

As the vendors, organizers, and leaders ready to celebrate the silver anniversary of the popular weekly gatherings, Spitz notes that announcements of the days and times of each market are now appearing in all of the visitor publications, and are in all of the drive guides.

This leads to a diverse mix of customers, as Javellana notes that “Koloa is mainly condo people. Lihu’e has a lot of local residents, and Kapa’a also has a lot of condo people.”

This 25 years of growth has led to several locations literally bursting at its seams, as Spitz points out that Koloa, although traffic can be regulated, and Kapa’a, have outgrown their physical space, the Kapa’a site literally choking vehicular traffic.

Meanwhile, customers visiting the island stopped at Ueunten’s stand to select a white pomelo (the ones inscribed with a Sharpie face and a “w” on its forehead).

“Don’t worry, she showed me how to select one,” the man in the group said. “Flat basketball. That’s how you know which one is ready (to eat).”

“Do they only grow here in the islands?” another visitor queried. “I’ve never seen them on the Mainland.”

“Oh no, my niece said they also have them in Israel,” Ueunten replied, interrupting her conversation to ask, “Are you five, yet?” as Hayley Nonaka passed by with her sister Sandy, who was still wearing her “money” apron, as Dean Nonaka piggy-backed Kai in search of their own shopping.

“People like the convenience,” Spitz said.

Javellana repeated as he closed his gate in preparation for departure, “The people, they love it!”

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