Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in food and beverage but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Lorie Obra, owner of Rusty's Hawaiian, located in Pahala, Hawaii, USA.
What's your business, and who are your customers?
Rusty’s Hawaiian is our family’s coffee farm, mill, and roastery on the southern side of Hawaii Island. My husband started it with a big dream: Turn the abandoned sugar plantations in the Ka‘u District, our area, into a celebrated coffee region.
Rusty died before realizing his vision, so I continued the company with a focus on artisanal quality. We have since won international and domestic awards for growing and roasting coffee. And our roastery now includes coffees from multiple Hawaiian regions.
Here’s a full list of our awards: https://www.rustyshawaiian.com/pages/awards
Tell us about yourself
My husband and I always wanted to retire in Hawaii Island’s Ka‘u District. We’d been traveling to Pahala, one of the area’s little towns since my in-laws moved there in the 1980s.
In 1996, the sugar mill in Pahala closed, leaving hundreds of townspeople unemployed. These displaced workers received a big grant to turn the sugar plantations into small, family-owned coffee farms. Their reasoning: If coffee made Kona famous, wouldn’t it work in Ka‘u?
A couple of years later, my husband received an early-retirement package from his job. The first thing we did was head to Pahala, where we started scouting business opportunities. That’s how we landed in a young coffee farm founded by one of Rusty’s friends, a former sugar-mill worker. This friend was telling us all about coffee, but we weren’t really listening to him. Rusty and I locked eyes, and without saying a word, we knew we would become coffee farmers.
Well, when we went home to New Jersey to tell our kids and my parents, they were shocked. You see, both Rusty and I had no experience in agriculture. I was a medical technologist, and he was a chemist, so we worked in laboratories our entire careers. In fact, my parents sent me to college to ensure I wouldn’t work in agriculture like they did. And here’s the kicker: We were about to start a coffee farm, and we didn’t even drink coffee!
Things happened very fast after that. By 2000, Rusty and I were living in Hawaii full time, tending to our newly planted coffee field. But we soon discovered that buyers wanted Kona coffee instead of Ka‘u coffee because our fledgling coffee region hadn’t yet built a name for itself. Rusty became the biggest champion for all of the Ka‘u coffee farmers. He kept asking government agencies for technical assistance, marketing help, and business training. Rusty also convinced our fellow farmers to keep going, even though it was really hard. And then, in 2006, he died of lung cancer. Before he died, he told me to give up the farm because it would be too hard for me to take care of it alone. But tending to his farm and his dream was the only thing that pushed me to get out of bed.
How did I transform my grief into internationally award-winning coffee? I’ll let my daughter tell the story. You can watch her on stage here: https://www.rustyshawaiian.com/blogs/news/joans-speech-at-the-hawaii-executive-conference
What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?
After my husband died, I spent almost three years learning how to make artisanal coffee with the help and encouragement of innovators in the specialty-coffee industry. In those early days, it was a lot of fearless experimentation. For I could learn what other coffee producers were doing around the world. Still, it took trial and error to modify their methods for our specific climatic conditions.
There was no guarantee the hard work would ever pay off. But I stayed hopeful, and 2009 brought a sweet surprise: I roasted our Grand Champion Red Bourbon coffee to earn my first 95-point score in Coffee Review: https://www.coffeereview.com/review/kau-bourbon/.
It wasn't a fluke. Between 2010 and 2012, we had a string of top honors that put us on the international map:
- 2010: I was named Outstanding Producer of the Year by the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe.
- 2010 and 2011: Rusty's Hawaiian was Grand Champion of the Hawaii Coffee Association's statewide cupping competition.
- 2011: Our farm provided some of the coffee that Pete Licata used to win the United States Barista Championship and take second place in the World Barista Championship.
- 2012: Our farm was one of 10 worldwide winners in the Roasters Guild's Coffees of the Year Competition, one of the most prestigious international competitions for coffee farmers at the time.
Those early successes after Rusty's death still are my sweetest accomplishment. After 34 years of being happily married, it was hard enough to adjust to being on my own – let alone lead a company forward!
What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?
Farming is a lot of manual labor, and it’s all done in Mother Nature’s time. Also, there aren’t shortcuts to maintaining high quality and consistency in specialty coffee. As both growers and roasters, we do a lot of cupping and roasting – first, to sample each lot and judge whether they are ready for release, and second, to determine if our production roasts are consistent. Both steps ensure that say, the bag of Ka‘u Classic Medium Roast you bought last month tastes like the one you buy this month.
What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?
Have courage. Life is a journey that rolls with the punches. And I like this tip from Diane von Furstenberg: “I listen to everyone, then do what I want!”
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
The most important thing to remember is this: Whatever obstacles you face, you can overcome them. Just be persistent!
Where can people find you and your business?
If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solopreneur that you'd like to share, then email firstname.lastname@example.org; we'd love to feature your journey on these pages.
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