When Tasha Kahele and her family moved to Alaska in November 2009 from Hawaii, it was sight unseen.
Her father was already living in Anchorage and had encouraged her and her husband, Shaun, to come. He said Alaska would provide better opportunities for their family.
But it took a few years for those opportunities to present themselves in the form of their Midtown grocery store, Aloha Stop and Shop. The shop celebrated its two-year anniversary in October.
At the Aloha Stop and Shop, a tiki-style bar stands in the corner for people ordering poke — a salad made from raw tuna and spiced with Hawaiian flavors. A freezer in the corner is filled with staples like poi, a mashed taro root dish, and specialty items like Hawaii-made ramen noodles and manapua, a type of steamed bun filled with pork. Mixes for kulolo and huapia — taro and coconut dessert bars — line the shelves. A whole wall is dedicated to snacks, including a dozen types of candy coated in li hing powder, made from a sweet and sour Chinese plum popular in the islands.
‘Our culture is to share’
Hawaiian clothing like sarongs and colorful button-down shirts hang on racks and ukulele music plays softly over the speakers. Art made by a Hawaiian-Alaskan artist is on the walls and the temperature is set to a balmy 82 degrees.
Kahele, 35, said it’s all intentional. It’s supposed to create that sense of aloha she experienced growing up in Hawaii. To Kahele, that means a space of gathering and inclusiveness, not just a word for hello and goodbye.
“Our culture is to share the good you’ve experienced with everyone,” she said.
Catering to Hawaiian community in North
The Aloha Stop and Shop is one of two businesses that have opened in the last two years catering to the Hawaiian community. According to census data, approximately 7,000 Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders reside in Anchorage. Several restaurants, including Hula Hands, have been operating for decades.
In October, Healani’s 808 Snacks and Things opened in the Northway Mall, selling a variety of snacks and clothing from Hawaii. Central Market and the New Sagaya stores also offer foods from the islands.
“The community is big here, so for the people that can’t go home, here you go,” said Healani’s owner, Rhonda Chenoweth.
About 230 people are part of the Na Keiki O Hawaii Civic Club, according to president Sammi Pedro, though she estimated that probably thousands of Hawaiians are living in Anchorage. They move for a variety of reasons, whether it’s pursuing better job opportunities or to be closer to family.
People coming to Alaska from Hawaii will often bring suitcases stuffed with goods. Having the shops makes it a little easier to find bits of home, she said.
“It’s a little bit of Hawaii,” Pedro said. “It’s meaningful for people who live here.”
A home for poke
Kahele and her husband didn’t plan to open a shop when they first moved to Alaska in 2009, she said.
After leaving Honolulu, they both got jobs at Anchorage nonprofits. Shaun would make poke for luaus and other family celebrations, and his relatives started encouraging him to sell it.
In April 2014, the Kaheles started selling poke under the name Da Poke Man. In the evenings, the couple rented commercial kitchen space in Fairview and made poke deliveries during their lunch breaks.
Shaun Kahele said he developed his poke recipes with inspiration from his homeland. He’s always been interested in cooking and planned to attend culinary school at one point. The birth of his first daughter when he was 19 sidetracked those plans.
The poke business in Anchorage grew, and after several successful months they decided to find a home for it, settling into a space at 3333 Fairbanks St., in a strip mall located behind Moose’s Tooth Pub and Pizzeria.
Challenges of shipping Hawaiian produce to Alaska
Tasha said running a small business in Anchorage is challenging, especially one that involves shipping fresh produce from Hawaii to Alaska. She and her husband have full-time jobs outside of the store. Their family has grown by three more children, to a total of six since they moved to Anchorage. Their youngest was born in February.
She said they have no plans to close the shop anytime soon.
“Even though we’re finding our place in the business world, we know where we sit in the community and we know how important it is to have a place like this in the community for people to gather,” Kahele said.
“We need it to survive and thrive here in Alaska. Some people come in here just for their fix of aloha. It’s important.”
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Observing Ramadan in Canada’s Arctic, Radio Canada International
Denmark: Denmark knights Arctic Canadian historian, Radio Canada International
Greenland: Canadian artist explores Greenland’s past, Eye on the Arctic
Norway: O Canada! … A Norwegian writer takes on our country’s features & foibles, Eye on the Arctic
Russia: Winter in the world’s coldest city, Blog by Mia Bennett
Sweden: New Nordic Noir drama to be set in Arctic Sweden, Radio Sweden
United States: Alaskans win Norwegian film contest, Alaska Dispatch News