By Léo Azambuja

Erick Burton, owner of The Kaua‘i Store. Photo by Léo Azambuja

When Erik Burton opened The Kaua‘i Store more than five years ago, his vision was a one-stop-shop for locally made products. Over the years, his business grew to represent more than 200 local vendors, with the store carrying 800-plus Kaua‘i-made products, online and onsite.

But since COVID-19 turned the world upside down, non-essential businesses — which include gift stores — were forced to shut down. Burton then decided to figure out how to keep his doors open, and most importantly, how to help the community in one of our most difficult times.

“I took a day to reflect and assess my options. Essential businesses were allowed to stay open. One of the essential categories was food. We had some foods, so I added some local produce, breads and such. In addition to that, we also carry fabric face masks,” said Burton, adding this shift was “more of an evolution than a revolution.”

Additionally, some people were afraid of going to big box stores. For them, Burton said, a small local store was seen as a better and safer option. And that’s how food became the answer. The Kaua‘i Store is selling fruits and vegetables from several different local farmers.

“We certainly aren’t generating any sustaining level of revenues yet, but at least we have a fighting chance to stay connected with our customers and shift with them,” he said.

The little bit of money the store is generating, he said, is helping to keep the lights on. But even with the revenues down, Burton still wanted to help the community in a meaningful way.

“I took half of the last bit of cash I had and bought a little bag of food to give away,” said Burton, adding he cleared some shelves, placed the food there, and it just took off. Two weeks later, the Kapa‘a Food Pantry was serving an average of 15 people every day. Now there is a lot of donated food stocked on the pantry shelves on the right side of the store, and no one leaves the store without the prospect of having at least a couple free meals.

“Even though these are not paying customers, they are coming into The Kaua‘i Store for the first time and having a very positive experience,” he said. “Although I am not generating any significant revenue, I am fortunate to still be engaging with customers and charting a path forward in these stormy waters.”

Those who know Burton, know he is a supporter of local agriculture. He said the island’s old business model of chasing the visitors’ dollars was already not working very well. Tourism has been down since August, and reduced visitor spending was hurting the visitor-oriented industry, according to Burton. The pandemic, he said, has forced the entire financial ecosystem on Kaua‘i to reset.

The Kapa‘a Food Pantry at The Kaua‘i Store has struck a chord with the current needs of the community, he said. Kaua‘i Made products target higher-end consumers and are generally out of reach for most locals.

“The time spent running the free food pantry is helping me to connect with exactly what all the different communities on Kaua‘i like to eat,” Burton said. “This knowledge will help me to shift the store’s inventory to better serve the local community. Localizing our business seems to be the best way forward on multiple levels.”

Burton is asking the community to support local businesses, the life of our economy. This is an important time to make sure we all support each other so we can get through this and be strong to rebuild the economy, he said.

“We have a big hill to climb and we need all of our local businesses to be at the top of our game,” Burton said.

He is inviting everyone to the Kapa‘a Food Pantry at The Kaua‘i Store to get some free food. He is planning on having the pantry open for a while, without an end in sight.

The Kaua‘i Store is at 4-1191 Kuhio Hwy in Kapa‘a. They are open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visit www.thekauaistore.com or call 631-6706 for more information.


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