Ke Ola Magazine ~ Every Store Has a Story
By Alan McNarie
Nestled in a grove of feral bamboo in old Volcano Village is a love affair that looks like a general store. There are some outward signs that this is more than just a store: the big mural by local artist Kathleen Kam covering most of the store’s front is a panorama lovingly depicting most of the native birds and plants of Kīlauea’s rainforest. Or the second mural, painted by Kam and the owner’s children, which decorates the courtyard of the little sit-down café and bar behind the store.
Or the comfortable benches under the roof eaves, where customers can stop to drink a soda or read the paper. Or the quilt shop in back, packed with handmade Hawaiian quilts, quilting supplies, and a huge range of works by local artists and craftspeople. This isn’t just a quick-trip joint, hustling customers in and out once they’ve spent their dollars. It’s designed to invite people in to sit a spell, to linger, and get to know the community.
“The quilt shop was driven by passion,” says Kathy Tripp, who co-owns the Kīlauea General Store with her husband, Ola. “The restaurant is driven by passion, because we love local food and we love to eat out, and we wanted someplace affordable for families because we have a large family. Everything we do is a part of us. We love coffee, so we have espresso. We love sandwiches soo….”
The Tripp family—originally Kathy, Ola, and Kathy’s mom, Audrey Kaneshiro—bought Kīlauea General in 1987. Ola’s mother, Momi Kalauli, was a lauhala weaver and Kathy was a quilter, so it was only natural for them to open the quilt shop, Kīlauea Creations, in a small garage-storage building behind the main store in 1995 to support quilters and Volcano’s growing arts and crafts community.
“The quilt shop was the dream of Ola’s mom,” says Kathy. Unfortunately, she passed away the month and the year that it opened. She never got to see it…. Of course, it’s a business; you have to run it. It’s been a real good thing for artists in the community. We have over 200 local artists.”
They added Volcano’s Lava Rock Café a couple of years later. The store, the restaurant, and the quilt shop have expanded and modernized over the years. The interior of Kīlauea General now sports modern grocery displays, checkout stations, and an espresso/smoothie counter. And it retains the essence of a village general store: an idiosyncratic plethora of goods, from used books to handmade thick-crust pizzas.
The air in the store is often fragrant with the aromas of homegrown products cooking in back: banana bread, ‘ōhelo berry jam, bread pudding, pepper jelly. Along a set of shelves on a back wall are hundreds of DVDs and Blue Rays—no red metal boxes here—for residents and tourists who need to while away a rainy Volcano evening. And this being Volcano, that loftiest and chilliest of all Hawai‘i’s communities, the usual tourist T-shirts have been replaced by a rack full of Lava Rock Café sweatshirts.
And of course, like any good country store, there’s a local family at the heart of the business. Kathy and Ola grew up together in Hilo. “We’re locally born and raised. I met her in middle school,” says Ola, then adds, with a grin, “I haven’t been able to get rid of her since.”
Sharing a workplace can be the death of some marriages. But after more than a quarter-century of working together, the Tripps are still very much in love. They thrive on each other’s company. “It’s a personality thing,” says Ola.” Understanding the gifts that she possesses—I recognize the value of that and I don’t want to interfere because it only benefits me. It’s more important than just me, because together we can do way more.”
“We wouldn’t be able survive what life throws at us without each other,” states Kathy. Ola’s cousin-in-law, Adele, serves as store manager, and her husband Rupert (Ola’s cousin) also sings in the musical group Kalapana and often can be found performing solos during the evening at the Lava Rock. Kathy does the accounting for the business. “I’m good at administration and delegating,” she says.
And Ola? “There’s nothing he can’t do in any area: electrician, carpenter, plumber,” she says. And she quickly adds, “The most important thing he does is he keeps everybody laughing. We’re both people persons, but he’s definitely Mr. Aloha. “I guess you’ve heard the term, front of the store, back of the store?” he says. “I’m front of the store.” He’s often seen literally out front, manning the cash register.
Like Rupert, he’s proud of his Hawaiian heritage and has been active in promoting it. A portrait of him in the garb of Hawaiian royalty hangs in the store: a memento of 2002, when he presided in the role of King Kalākaua at the Merrie Monarch Festival.
“It was a good time of life for me, as far as representing my culture,” he recalls. With his six-foot-four frame, he had no problem cutting an imposing figure. “I’ve always been the king type. Kathy loves it when people bow to me,” he jokes—although he had to spend a year growing a proper beard. The hardest part of the role, for him was keeping a straight face. Ironically, the king of the Merrie Monarch Festival is not supposed to smile.
“I got scolded,” he recalls. “We were always joking around, because Rupert and Adele were in the royal court, too.” They’ve had the store long enough, now, that many village residents have known no other owners.
One reason why they’ve survived so long is their ability to adapt to changing times. “When we first got the store 25 years ago it was a guarantee that the mom and pop could do what they do and still survive,” says Kathy. “Now, with all the Wal-Marts and such, you can’t just do one thing. You have to diversify.”
One challenge that Kathy and Ola have faced was to make room for that diversification while keeping the old building’s historic and rustic character. When the front lanai was sacrificed to make room for the espresso counter, they hired Kam to paint the mural across the new front wall. Redwood, the original building material of so many plantation-era buildings, isn’t easy to acquire these days.
They’ve used some modern materials on one outer wall, and when they remodeled the storage space behind the store to create the Lava Rock Café, they paneled the entire interior with pine. Soon the modernized outer wall will be shaded by a new lanai along the side of the store, supported by posts of local ‘ōhi‘a wood.
Their clientele has changed, too. They still get the Japanese farmers and the local residents, but they now also cater to a much higher percentage of tourists. Tour buses stop there regularly, but their real bread and butter is free and independent travelers, or FITS: the folks who rent a car, plan their own itinerary, and tend to stay at Volcano’s numerous bed and breakfasts.
FITS leave a lot more money in the local economy than do the tourists who stay at big foreign-owned resorts and travel by tour bus—and, as Kathy notes, “Don’t want the tourist experience.” So in deference to both the FITS and the local families, the Lava Rock serves well-prepared local dishes such as chicken katsu and its bar is stocked with Hawai‘i grown wines and Hawai‘i brewed beers. Kīlauea Kreations provides the interface between FITS and local artists, and thousands of visitors have gone home with their first jar of ‘ōhelo-berry jam from Kīlauea General’s shelves. “We know what we do and we do it good,” says Kathy.
“We know we do local good. That’s what we do.”