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Common Ground closes café

LIHUE — Common Ground Kauai announced Tuesday that it has shut down The Garden Café, a favorite North Shore “field-to-table” eatery, in order to focus on the development of personal health and sustainability events.

“The bottom line is we really want to find the smartest way to get the ‘food is medicine’ message out there,” Owner Cameron Christopher Jaeb said.

After taking a close look at the numbers, Jaeb said he “couldn’t make an economic case to really carry on with the café.”

The closure comes about one month after the restaurant officially expanded its hours to begin serving dinner and hosting evening events, a move that drew fire from nearby neighbors concerned about increased traffic and noise on the rural road.

Jen Vanderlaan, the company’s restaurant and event manager, said that while the decision was extremely difficult and not a result of a lack of business, it was necessary to keep Common Ground moving forward with its vision.

“This isn’t the end of Common Ground in any way whatsoever,” Vanderlaan said. “It’s just a new direction.”

Common Ground Kauai is a 48-acre parcel of the former Guava Kai Plantation in Kilauea. The café, which Jaeb opened in 2010, exclusively served Kauai grown beef, local fish and garden vegetables.

The closure took effect Tuesday. Eight employees have been laid off, while 10 will continue on an on-call basis. Five others announced their intention to leave prior to the announcement and will not be replaced.

Three employees will stay on full time.

Vanderlaan and Jaeb said the plan to host a variety of special events — private and public — which may include family picnic days, farm-to-table dinners, pizza and sushi nights, holiday parties, health and wellness speakers, musical events, garden and farmers markets, and catering.

Offering an organic, non-GMO menu, is expensive, Vanderlaan said. And to simply raise prices at the café to make ends meet would not have been doing the community a service.

“We want you to know that Common Ground is still going to offer the same healthy, wonderful meals that you love, it will just be in an event format,” Common Ground wrote on its Facebook Page, where several voiced shock and disapproval.

“(Favorite) place to eat on all of Hawaii, good luck and hopefully there will be a café again one day!” wrote Devon McIlroy.

“You are a great witness to sustainable and very edible food,” wrote Gregory Young. “I count myself very lucky that I was able to enjoy your cuisine for the first time last week.”

However, not everyone in Kilauea has supported the business, located at the top of rural Kuawa Road, or its recent expansion plans.

In April, the County Liquor Control Commission permitted Common Ground Cafe to sell alcohol, provide live entertainment, dancing and extended hours for private parties. At that time, nearby residents voiced opposition.

Some said the county set a bad precedent in granting a liquor license on agricultural land. Others worried about traffic and feared drinking would cause problems on the narrow, unlit road.

Neighbor Randy Smith said he welcomed Tuesday’s news because he felt Common Ground is creating more traffic on a private road than the residents who live there.

“There’s no lighting,” he said. “So it really was kind of spooky.”

Last month, in an interview with The Garden Island, Jaeb said things were looking up at Common Ground, that the property was no longer for sale and that his vision was “to build this out from an agricultural and a human development perspective as best we can.”

On Tuesday, however, he said he felt Common Ground could do a better job of getting its message out there by moving away from the day-to-day headaches that come with operating the restaurant.

“We’re going to sort of learn it by doing it,” he said of the change.

Common Grounds Kauai is currently listed as for sale by Neal Norman, of Hawaii Life Real Estate Brokers. The asking price is $10 million.

C. Brewer & Co. owned the land and operated Guava Kai plantation through subsidiaries Kilauea Agronomics and Hawaii Fruit Specialties. After selling the land in 1996, C. Brewer leased it back to continue orchard operations until 180-year-old C. Brewer was dissolved in 2007.

Jaeb established the nonprofit Malama Kauai in 2006. He bought 46.59 acres of Guava Kai in 2008, including the visitor center, administration building and snack bar area. The snack bar became The Garden Café in 2010, as an extension of the nonprofit’s vision to build self-reliant communities that improve economic, social, environmental and cultural health.

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