The pandemic has closed many businesses across the nation but has left one inspired Kaua‘i wahine to think “inside of a can” instead of outside of the box.
Justine (Bender) Bennett, a Koloa businesswoman using a licensed kitchen in Anahola, launched her e-commerce business, ‘Ekahi Ahi, a division of Waterman &Salt LLC, in August.
‘Ekahi Ahi’s mission is to provide delicious, premier, gourmet canned ahi, sustainability sourced by buying line-caught fish from Kaua‘i’s local fishermen while creating good-paying local jobs.
“I started making canned ahi as an experiment, trying my grandmother’s recipes with our beautiful Kauaian yellow-fin ahi and then started giving it as gifts, and people loved it,” Bennett said. “My purpose has always been to build a business that matched my passion for doing the right thing.”
Keeping her community in mind, Bennett asked herself some meaningful questions that spearheaded her mission: “What can I do to ensure that the people in our community can make a good wage, can stay employed while adhering to my principles of pono, malama and ‘ohana?”
“‘Ekahi” means “one” in Hawaiian, and Bennett explains why she chose that name for her Kaua‘i-made product.
“Our island is amazing. Everyone can make a difference,” said Bennett. “One item purchased locally in place of one that isn’t local, or one item that is sustainability sourced in place of one that isn’t, will create ripples that spiral out… the impacts will be astounding — and you will have made that impact… One fish. One line. One ocean.”
In order to honor Kaua‘i’s local heritage, ‘Ekahi Ahi produces everything on-island.
“We use only the freshest ahi, line-caught off Kaua‘i’s shores by local fishermen, local sea salt, Hawaiian chili peppers, slices of Tahitian lime and ginger root, all grown on Kaua‘i,” she said.
Bennett features three flavors of ahi, made with Hawaiian sea salt and olive oil.
“The ‘original’ product, which is made with Tahitian lime; the ‘nioi’ (Hawaiian chili pepper) and the ‘ginger citrus’ (ginger and Tahitian limes),” said Bennett, “I can my fish when the fishermen bring in the ahi. If it’s not running I’m not canning. This summer we produced 2,000 jars.
“It’s not a weekly thing because it’s important to me to use only what the ocean brings us. But when they call me they know to bring a minimum of 50 pounds. We process 50 pounds at a time, so in the summer we were buying around 250 pounds per week,” said Bennett.
Bennett was recently invited to participate in the pilot incubator cohort program for start-up and small businesses, operated by Common Ground of Kilauea.
“The incubator is an amazing mentorship and college-level business-class program that Common Ground put together to help grow local Kaua‘i food-based businesses,” Bennett said. “Every Monday I ‘go back to college’ — we are given homework and tasks related to growing our business and they educate us on how best to do that — helping us to work through real-life business problems to find solutions and to help us grow.
“Not to mention a sizable grant that I’ve used to pay for much-needed supplies, materials and daily costs,” said Bennett.
Where did you get your fish?
“I started with Garden Isle Seafood, and Anthony would tell me who caught the fish,” said Bennett. “Warren Koga and Walton Souza provided a lot of fish for me this summer. We label each jar to honor the fisherman that caught the ahi.”
What’s next for your business?
“‘Ekahi will be canning different seasonal flavors and utilizing different fish,” said Bennett. “My goal is to open my own cannery when I’m successful enough to afford it, so I can hire more local people and pay them well for quality workmanship. Food is art.”
Where is ‘Ekahi sold at?
“Our first customer was Jim at the Koke‘e Lodge, since our August launch we just started selling in Hokus, the Local Beet and Kaua‘i Food Hub,” said Bennett. “We have at least five local stores that just made orders but until it’s in their hands I’m hesitant to say.”