Maui’s struggling small businesses driven by the spirit of aloha

A boy rides along Main Street past wildfire damage on Aug. 11 in Lahaina, Maui. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Ken Alba, a Lahaina resident, carries a bag of ice on Aug. 17 at a food and supply distribution center set up in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Lahaina, Maui. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

A banyan tree stands along Lahaina town's historic Front Street in 2018, in Lahaina, Maui. (AP Photo/Jennifer McDermott)

Dreams shattered. Shops burned to the ground. Irreplaceable losses.

These are the realities that small business owners in Lahaina are dealing with as the three-month mark of the devastating Aug. 8 fires draws near. And yet, some are still holding onto hope of surviving the gauntlet of challenges that lie ahead and one day, years from now, returning to Lahaina.


For now, many are still in survival mode and, in the spirit of aloha, raising funds to help employees who have lost their homes and loved ones — and they need all the help they can get to rise again.

David Yamashiro, co-founder of Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice, lost his flagship store and warehouse at 790 Front St., along with another shop near the banyan tree, but has several others on Maui to keep afloat.

The Front Street shop was Ululani’s top-selling location, he said, and the most visible, serving up to 1,000 people a day. He is keeping his other Maui shops open despite seeing a dramatic drop in revenue due to the decline in visitors.

Still, Yamashiro has a platform, having served more than 1 million customers from around the world, and he’s using it to raise funds for more than a dozen employees, along with three Lahaina families that lost their homes, and others in need of help.

Yamashiro’s message to the world: Please visit Maui.

To provide jobs at his remaining shave ice shops in Kahului, Wailuku, Kihei and Paia, he needs a boost in visitors who make up the bulk of customers at most of the locations.

“Just be mindful, aware and conscientious,” he said. “Just know that people are still hurting.”

Hawaii’s four county mayors announced Friday they are designating November as “Kokua for Maui — Shop &Show Aloha” month, encouraging everyone to shop local.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has launched an education campaign asking visitors to “pack your patience and grace.” HTA advises visitors to support local businesses but to not enter the affected area of Lahaina town or take photos of the area, even from afar.

Yamashiro said the disaster’s impact on business is a close second to the early COVID-19 shutdown.

In the initial days following the Aug. 8 disaster, revenue dropped anywhere from 60% to 70%, he said, and is still slow, with a little uptick in the past week. He is relying on reserves to keep the other shops open despite the trickle of customers.

He is still working through the insurance process for the losses, and staying positive that business will pick up in coming weeks.

At the same time, Yamashiro has raised more than $180,000 via a GoFundMe campaign to support his employees, along with three displaced Lahaina families that lost their homes.

He has held “Malama Maui” days, giving out free shave ice and gift cards.

“We have been passing out money and gift cards, up to $500, $1,000 and $2,000 to people we encounter that have lost everything,” he said. “It’s not only our employees, but a lot of people lost family members and everything that they own. … A lot of people are hurting.”

Robert Loera and Barbara Skaggs, owners of Maui Toy Works, lost their beloved shop at Pioneer Inn, a dream come true that emerged out of a love for kites and bringing joy through toys.

The shop in Lahaina’s historic district featured a colorful chandelier of glass shaped like candies and a custom, whale-shaped counter made from monkeypod. It sold apparel, toys and books.

“I had the most beautiful store,” said Robert Loera. “It was an amazing store.”

They own another store at Lahaina Cannery Mall, which was likely protected from damage to the interior, but have not been able to open there due to water issues. Most shops there remain closed, said Loera.

The business was just recovering from debts due to the COVID-19 pandemic when this disaster happened.

They thought all was lost but are now holding onto hope, with online sales of “Goodnight, Goodnight, Lahaina Town,” “Good Night Maui” and a limited-edition puzzle of Lahaina that features Front Street.

Two days after the fire, Robert, still in shock, said his iPad started pinging with messages of support.

“We didn’t know we were going into online business, but we were fortunate we were set up for that,” he said.

What has touched him is the goodwill of customers from around the world who had visited the shops on Maui, as well as the publisher of “Goodnight, Goodnight, Lahaina Town,” who offered to fill orders for the book when all their stock had been lost.

Maui Toy Works, doing business as Kites Hawaii, was initially founded on Oahu in 1982 as a kite shop. Robert says he was known as the “kite man” at Kapiolani Park but that they later moved to Maui and expanded to sales of toys, apparel and books.

They escaped the Aug. 8 fires in their car — and were lucky, he said, as they resisted the urge to return home, which would have put them in the midst of the blaze — and made it out before the exits were blocked.

While grateful for their lives, it was a harrowing experience. He says half of his staff of eight lost their homes, so he started a GoFundMe to raise $25,000 to help them.

The shock and sadness of it all — and much uncertainty — still remain.

“You know, it doesn’t go away,” he said. “There is a real, deep sadness. It’s difficult.”

Grants from the government will be needed to help small businesses survive, he said. Customers can help by supporting small businesses online.

He and Barbara still hope to return to Lahaina one day, even if 10 years from now.

They are grateful for the goodwill of people. He says sometimes he would give things away at the store, and that people still remember that. He is now feeling some of that goodwill reciprocated.

Lily Nguyen, owner of Lahaina Noodle Bar 170 Papalaua St., lost everything: the home she rented and everything in it, her restaurant, and her car, which she left on Front Street after jumping into the ocean to escape the flames.

She co-owned Lahaina Nails &Spa, which also burned down, along with Lahaina Noodle Bar, the family-run business where she worked seven days a week.

Nguyen said she took over ownership of Lahaina Noodle Bar nearly a year ago. The restaurant got many good reviews as it served up Vietnamese spring rolls, pho and other dishes.

With everything lost, Nguyen is now sleeping in a friend’s living room and doing what she knows best: Cooking for others.

She’s serving up free meals, mostly at the Pohaku Park “S-turns hub” near Lahaina, offering up pho, grilled chicken and Thai iced tea. She said the comfort food heals people.

On Aug. 8 she and her daughter were trapped in their car on Front Street, blocked on all sides. Out of desperation, they ditched their car by Waikiki Brewing Co. and jumped into the ocean, where they waited for almost five hours before being rescued.

She has been in Lahaina for about 10 years now and says it is home. She is grateful to be alive, and willing to work to rebuild her business, but was turned down for another small-business loan and does not know what the future holds.

For now she just keeps cooking and serving up free meals for the community. Her daughter, Katie Ho, has set up a for her.

For the Yamashiros, the loss of the Front Street shop is a big blow, sentimentally, as it was the birthplace of Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice.

He and his wife, Ululani, started selling their signature shave ice from a 65-square-foot space off the main street in 2008, then were able to move to a larger space in 2010, where the business took off and was eventually able to expand to Oahu, California and Texas.

A new Ululani’s Hawaiian Shave Ice is expected to open in November in Livermore, Calif.

Yamashiro envisions returning to Lahaina but believes it will be a long haul — at least five years to rebuild and 10 years to get back to normal, with many pieces that still need to be put back together.

“We’re all just trying to help each other out,” he said.

Ways to help during Kokua for Maui — Shop &Show Aloha month: Support Maui businesses online or in person, support the Made in Maui County Festival on Nov. 3 and 4 at the Maui Arts &Cultural Center, or visit to find more ways to support local businesses.

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