Highway hawking: West Hawaii vendors push limits with roadside retail

  • Vendors and fundraisers sell their goods Saturday on Queen Kaahumanu Highway. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Jonas Mahoe and Hannah Merril often spend their Saturdays fishing — in the proverbial sense. Their targets aren’t ono or ahi, but people. And their lures are about as sweet as bait gets: cases of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Mahoe and Merril are part of Holoholo Ministries, a Christian-based nonprofit organization affiliated with Youth With a Mission (YWAM) that sets up snorkel outings and boogie board days for local people with special needs, among several other endeavors.

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“Holoholo means … to go,” Mahoe said. “We use that in our church to be fishers of men.”

While some of the nonprofit activities funded by the doughnuts Mahoe and Merril sell to passing motorists are water-based, they conduct their “fishing” on land, specifically on a tract of earth off the makai side Queen Kaahumanu Highway fronting Kona Hawaii Temple — a Mormon temple with which Holoholo Ministries is not affiliated.

The only problem is Holoholo Ministries and other vendors that frequently set up alongside them aren’t technically supposed to be there.

Hawaii Revised Statute 264-101 prohibits vending along state highways, which is only allowed if a vendor is granted a special permit. Yet sellers have been carrying on the practice for years on the stretch of state highway in question, as well as at other roadside locations like the intersection of Queen Kaahumanu Highway and Hina Lani Street near Costco and spots farther south stretching into Kealakekua.

Just another market

Holoholo Ministries isn’t the only familiar roadside vendor that sets up shop on the busy strip of Kailua-Kona’s primary thoroughfare. Some weekends it is joined only by one or two other vendors, most of which operate as small entrepreneurial enterprises rather than fundraising efforts.

Other weekends, several vendors set up shop, creating a veritable roadside swap meet selling everything from fruits and vegetables to wares like clothing and guitars. Sometimes, even puppies are up for sale.

Merril said the makeshift flea market off the highway has been a weekend fixture ever since she moved to the island four years ago. Mahoe said it’s actually been around much longer than that, tracing its roots back roughly a decade.

“This is one of the most artsy, hand-crafted places I’ve lived,” Merril said. “I think if you’re from here then you know when (certain vendors) are going to come and you plan around that.”

Both Mahoe and another seller, who often frequent the roadside strip but asked to remain anonymous for this report, said they’ve been served with public notices from the state District Engineer asking them to remove their stands and citing Hawaii Revised Statutes applicable to outdoor vending and outdoor advertising. Both said they last received those notices years ago.

“Illegal vending can create a hazardous condition or a public nuisance,” Tim Sakahara, public information officer with the Hawaii Department of Transportation, wrote in an email. “HDOT issues notices to vendors who operate illegally within HDOT jurisdiction and will work with the County of Hawaii Police Department on enforcement.”

“Customers should avoid stopping at illegal vendors along the highway for their own safety and to help deter the vendors from setting up,” Sakahara continued.

Yet Merril and other vendors say regular customers have come to rely on the roadside market. And Mahoe said the police, for their part, aren’t particularly concerned with residents trying to make an honest buck.

“The cops are fine,” Mahoe said.

“I want them to pull over,” he added, saying police tend to be affable and sometimes buy his doughnuts.

Maj. Robert Wagner, of the Hawaii Police Department, said rules about permits and what can and can’t be sold on roadsides varies from the state to the county. County rules are more relaxed, he explained, and added the department’s approach to roadside vending is more reactive than proactive.

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“If somebody makes a complaint that says people are vending in a certain place without a permit, then we check it out,” Wagner said. “We won’t just randomly stop and ask people for their permits.”

Wagner did not attribute any traffic incidents to the weekend roadside market on Queen Kaahumanu Highway and said he was “not familiar with any complaints within the last year” made to HPD.