Historic Hanapepe Town is becoming Kauai’s biggest little economy.
“It’s a cute little town, very quiet and quaint,” said Nicki Paulus, visiting from Wisconsin with her husband for the first time. “On the other side of the island, too many people crowd the streets. Here you can actually find a place to park and comfortably walk. It’s a step back in time.”
Many modest stores on Hanapepe’s main street have noticed a steady increase in summer sales from both residents and visitors.
“Historic Hanapepe Town has been quietly building its reputation as a must-see destination for Kauai’s visitors and residents,” said Mark Perriello, Kauai Chamber of Commerce president. “And recently many Hanapepe-based businesses are experiencing a welcome upswing in business.”
The dozens of charming shops here offer a variety of unique products, from fresh food at Hanapepe Cafe, Ono Pops, The Right Slice and Aloha Spice Company, to colorful artwork at galleries like Bright Side, Island Art and The Bridge.
“Every year has gotten better and better, but this year has been the best,” said Ed Justus, co-owner of The Bookstore, which has been downtown for 13 years, and is considered the nation’s westernmost bookstore. “Every day it’s been busy, and business is booming. Maybe one reason is our diverse stock, 90 percent locally sourced on Kauai.”
Business has been really good at PS&D Napa Auto Parts, too, said Manager Richard Arakaki.
“I have loyal customers, family people,” he said. “It’s easy to relate to them. It’s the best on this side.”
The small, old-fashioned town on Kauai’s Westside has a character distinct from other parts of the island, say residents and shop owners. Hanapepe’s population was just 2,638 at the last census in 2010. But locals and tourists visit often, drawn by features such as the wooden swinging bridge crossing Kauai’s third-largest river.
“What is special about Hanapepe is that it really gives you a feel of Old Hawaii,” said Joanna Carolan, owner of Banana Patch Studio, open since 2003. “Time seems to go slower here. People are drawn here because it gives them a sense of time slowing down.”
The aged buildings dating to early 1900 create a warm feeling of going back in time. Picturesque shops offer up local dishes, spices, jewelry, books, art and handmade goods. The hand-painted pottery from Banana Patch Studio is even baked in a kiln powered by Hanapepe sun.
“The originality is authentic, it’s not just cheesy junk,” said Rod Gibbs, a retiree visiting with his wife from Nipomo, California. “Everybody is extremely nice and helpful. We bought a pocket knife and some jewelry.”
The quality of products sold in Hanapepe is only surpassed by the kindness and hospitality of its accommodating merchants, others said.
“Summer was really good for us; there was a lot of traffic through town,” said Derek Hosaka, owner of Bobbie’s Restaurant, operating since 2004. “We put out a good product at a good price with a good portion. Our staff is what it’s all about. They are honest, hardworking and courteous to our customers. They give 100 percent effort for every plate we put out.”
The nonprofit Hanapepe Economic Alliance, formed in 1997 by business owners, has created a Historic Walking Tour map and gathered historical information for the preservation and economic revitalization of Hanapepe.
The Economic Alliance has also established special events with entertainment and activities to bring more business to downtown stores. Online marketing efforts have brought more exposure to some shops like Japanese Grandma’s Cafe and Blu Umi.
“Residents from as far as the North Shore are willing to make the drive to the Westside in order to experience the outstanding culinary delights of Hanapepe’s newest restaurant, Japanese Grandma’s,” Perriello said. “While there, these new patrons visit the many other shops and galleries located in Hanapepe, further boosting the local economy.”
“It’s in an upswing for us,” said Keiko Napier, owner of Japanese Grandma’s and Blu Umi. “If we’re open, they come. We have a good selection of products and are well-known for our sushi all over the island.”
Nearly 20 years of Friday Art Nights have helped increase consumer spending at Hanapepe’s downtown shops. Now participating businesses are attracting more customers by handing out limited-edition art buttons for a chance to win a James Hoyle seriograph.
The annual Orchid and Art Festival in April and Chocolate and Coffee Festival in October attract hundreds of people each year. However, there is still plenty of room for economic growth and improvements to old structures and sidewalks.
“Our business has been quieter than last season,” said Debra Wennett, store manager for Puuwai Haokila Gallery and Veronica Jewelry. “Friday Art Night has been good, though. People often come back to make a purchase and walk around town.”