Small Business awards go to 6 Kaua‘i entrepreneurs

LIHU‘E — Life just got a little sweeter for Marie Cassel, owner of Sweet Marie’s Bakery in Lihu‘e. The U.S. Small Business Administration has named her Kaua‘i’s Person of the Year — the SBA’s top honor for the county.

“To get this kind of recognition is just incredible,” Cassel said on Saturday. “I couldn’t be happier.”

Each year across the country, the SBA selects businesses, entrepreneurs and advocates that best illustrate the economic importance of small business. The SBA’s Hawai‘i District Office selects winners from a statewide pool of candidates recommend for recognition by local banking or financial institutions.  

The Small Business Person of the Year award goes to the small business owner who is dedicated and has exhibited extraordinary commitment to small business, staying power, growth, job creation, entrepreneurial skills and innovation of products and services, said Jane Sawyer, director of the SBA’s Hawai‘i District Office.

Marie Cassel has demonstrated all of these things, Sawyer said. Cassel was nominated by Connie Clausen, business relations manager at American Savings Bank in Lihu‘e.  

“Connie has known her from her startup days, when she was working out of her kitchen,” Sawyer said. “Marie has developed her passion into a full-time business and has demonstrated growth, even in difficult times. Her desserts are both decadent and gluten-free. I thought that was impossible.”

Cassel said Sweet Marie’s is the only bakery in the state that offers a menu that is entirely gluten-free. Soy-free, dairy-free and sugar-free pastries are offered occasionally, too, but gluten-free is her passion, she said.

While spending time in Thailand years ago, Cassel said she noticed she was suddenly feeling better physically. Digestive and skin ailments that had plagued her most of her life suddenly disappeared.

Cassel, a trained chef, said she didn’t attribute the improvements

to her change in diet until she returned to the United States and went back to her SAD routine, or Standard American Diet.

A physician later diagnosed her as having celiac sprue, also known as gluten intolerance, an autoimmune condition affecting about 1 out of every 150 people in the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health. Wheat, barley and rye have high levels of gluten protein.

Tourists and grocery stores are demanding her products, she said, especially since her business appeared in the “Lonely Planet” guidebook for Kaua‘i.

“Tourists have become my biggest customers,” she said Saturday after offering directions to a visitor who called the bakery for directions from the airport.

Being successful in business is more than just having a unique product, she said. “You have to be passionate about what you do. Otherwise, why do it?”

Sweet Marie’s is one of six Kaua‘i County small businesses the SBA is recognizing for excellence this year.

The organization’s award judges selected Laura Cristobal, owner of Salty Wahine Gourmet Hawaiian Sea Salts in Lihu‘e, as Exporter of the Year.

Jeni Kaohelauli‘i, president if Work It Out in Kapa‘a, was named Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

The Carswell family, owners and founders of Princeville Ranch Adventures, was named Family-Owned Business of the Year.

Patricia Griffin, president of the Lihu‘e Business Association, was selected Minority Small Business Champion of the Year.

Liz Ronaldson, owner of Growing Greens Nursery in Kapa‘a, was named Home-Based Business Champion of the Year.     

When it comes to Small Business awards, “Kaua‘i is usually very well represented statewide,” Sawyer said.

Randy Francisco, president of the Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce, said, “One of the things I have learned in the last six years has been that these awards create awareness about small businesses that normally don’t get any kind of recognition and that don’t have any marketing dollars. So it helps them, as a nice, unintended consequence.”

Each of the nominees, Francisco said, represents a cross-section of businesses that support Kaua‘i’s local economy each day.

“It helps to highlight their struggle and reminds us they are all champions,” he said.

As president of the Lihu‘e Business Association, Griffin has become an important resource for local businesses, Francisco said.

“She works so hard,” he said. “As a transplant to Kaua‘i, she lives in and contributes to the community and uses her talents for leadership and policy making.”

Griffin said the Lihu‘e Business Association is working for the vitality o businesses and, in turn, the community.

“While we concentrate attention to Lihu‘e — that’s the heart of Kaua‘i,” Griffin said, “we see the effects island-wide. … We look at a larger picture.”

She said many business are looking for ways to minimize increasing energy costs. The Lihu‘e Business Association’s monthly meetings at Duke’s Canoe Club are often opportunities for local business and government officials to discuss challenges and potential solutions. Guest speakers have included the mayor, state legislators, county department heads and the often-unseen leaders of local businesses and organizations.

“One of our goals is to provide a voice to county, state and federal government,” Griffin said, “and to have business owners speak with them about how they’re doing and what it takes to have a prosperous community.”

Griffin attributes her success as a business organizer to “attention to detail, passion for excellence, commitment to clients, integrity of service, dedication to community and support of people smarter than I — and just as committed,” she said.

To entrepreneurs ready to open a business on Kaua‘i or for business owners wishing to excel in a challenging economy, Griffin said, “Find your niche, enlist the talents of others, be in the right place at the right time, embrace failures as stepping stones to success and go for it.”

Young Entrepreneur Jeni Kaohelauli‘i wears many hats as president, vice president, secretary and treasurer of Work It Out.

“Jeni was recognized last year for her achievements in retail, and she is the youngest of the (SBA award) group,” the Chamber’s Francisco said. “She’s in the right time and place with her fitness business.”

The Carswells’ Family-Owned Business of the Year represents “generations of people passing the torch, growing, expanding and giving back to the community, environmental stewardship and caring for the rural architecture and the community,” Francisco said.

The founders and current owners of Princeville Ranch Adventures, dba Carswell Enterprises Inc., include husband and wife team Donn “Curly” and Gale Carswell; David, Denise and Chris Carswell; Kelley Carswell-Haneberg and Karin Carswell Guest.  

Six generations of Carswells have lived on Kaua‘i, and they have deep roots at Princeville Ranch. In 1978, the family established Princeville Ranch Stables horseback riding adventures, and over the decades their adventure business has grown to include hiking, kayaking and zip lining.

Home-Based Business Champion Liz Ronaldson has been growing her green business on Kaua‘i for 17 years. Ronaldson, the owner of Growing Greens Nursery, said she loves what she does.

“Success comes from giving of yourself, great plant material and customer service,” she said.

“Getting involved in the community and working with others is most rewarding,” Ronaldson said.

To others looking to grow a business on Kaua‘i, she said, “A good business plan is so necessary in today’s world. Things are changing so quickly, and being prepared is so important.”  

Laura Cristobal, owner of Salty Wahine and Exporter of the Year winner, said she recommends joining business organizations.

“I would advise anyone starting out to join their local Chamber of Commerce and attend all their events,” Cristobal said.

“This helps you network with people who can help your business grow. Take classes. I’ve taken so many classes that are offered via the SBA, like ‘How to Start a Business’ and ‘How to Write a Business Plan.’ The SBA is a wealth of information, and most classes and information you can get for free,” she said.

Cristobal has been making her Hawaiian salt seasoning blend for more than 30 years, but she said she officially started her business in 2008 after retiring from her 30-year career in the travel industry.

“My sister Lori Cardenas with Aunty Lilikoi runs a very successful business and has given me guidance, along with the Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce and the Kaua‘i Made program,” she said.

“All of these mentors, combined with great marketing skills, … have helped me move forward. Plus, I am blessed that I make a product that people love. I have a great staff, too. I now have seven employees,” Cristobal said.

Francisco said every Kaua‘i business that won a 2012 SBA award is run by a woman.

“When you look at all of these individuals, this year really celebrates woman power and female entrepreneurship across diverse sectors. Women have not only a can-do, but will-do attitude, and all of these women are examples — especially in this difficult economy — of what it takes to survive,” he said.

On Thursday, the Kaua‘i Chamber of Commerce will honor the six winners during its Business After Hours gathering from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Kaua‘i Coffee Visitors Center in ‘Ele‘ele.

For additional information, call the Kaua‘i Chamber at 245-7363.

The 25th Annual Statewide SBA Awards Luncheon in honor of all 27 business recognized by SBA statewide will be held on May 9 at Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. For more information, contact the Hawai‘i District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration at (808) 541-2990.

The Small Business Person of the Year award for the state of Hawai‘i went to Michael Tokunaga, president of S. Tokunaga Store. His family-owned shop in Hilo caters to fishing, diving and sport enthusiasts from around the world and sponsors internationally known tournaments and activities, an SBA announcement states.  

Tokunaga Store will go on to compete with winners from 49 other states, Guam and Puerto Rico, for a national title during National Small Business Week in Washington, D.C.

• Vanessa Van Voorhis, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 251, or by emailing


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