The historic Ma'alaea General Store and Cafe has returned and is doing well at the harbor across from the Coast Guard Station. Though the store was first established in 1910, it closed in 2005 as the Uno family looked for a new owner. Because it was an older, non-conforming commercial property near the water without a sewer hookup, it presented problems for a would-be buyer.
Taking on the challenge of bringing it back in style was Dominick Marino of Pukalani, who is better known to many Maui residents as the owner of Valley Isle Pumping. He purchased the store in 2010 and spent the next 18 months restoring it. The general store, cafe and deli reopened in August 2012.
This month, Marino noted that the deli side is ranked No. 1 in popularity among the 61 restaurants in the Wailuku zip code, by no less than Trip Advisor. On its Website, users give the business a slew of four- and five-star ratings.
Manager Ed O’Malley leads a staff of about 20 employees on two shifts.
Photo: Susan Halas
Indeed, there are many enthusiastic reviews from recent visitors with recommendations for fish tacos, coffee, burgers and home cut fries. They like the location, too--right on the water--and also acknowledged the friendly staff and convenient hours. There are even a few nods to the old fashioned "red hot dog"--a staple of the store's previous incarnation.
Marino, who has been servicing the harbor for 35 years through his pumping business, is well aware of store's prior role as "a convenient drop-in place to get just about anything," including ice, beer, bait and sundries.
"I missed the store," he recalled. "It was one of those casual places where you could get a hot dog, a coke and ice cream."
"When I first looked at it, I had the idea I could salvage it," said Marino.
But in the end, there were many unforeseen difficulties and obstacles to overcome. Marino estimated it cost about $1.25 million (in addition to what he spent to buy the property) to get it to look like it's been there forever. The structure, now historically accurate in every detail, is listed in the Hawai'i Register of Historic Places.
Asked what advice he'd give others who might want to attempt similar preservation and adaptive re-use projects, he suggested: "Make sure you love the property. Then just take whatever the number you come up with and multiply it by two. That's more like what it really cost us to make the improvements. I have a contractor's license, so we were able to do a lot of the work ourselves, but it was still more than I had expected."
On the outside, the structure is all vintage plantation-style, wood-framed architecture. On the inside, it is up to code and carries everything you'd need on short notice, including fresh produce, food and snack items in small sizes, liquor, post cards and other sundries.
It also offers a surprisingly ambitious cafe and deli menu and hosts its own in-house bakery. There are fresh pastries made daily, foccacia bread and other treats. Prices for fish tacos, burgers, sandwiches and meal-size salads are in the $8 to 11 range. At $12.50, the fish and chips is the most expensive offering on the menu. Pastries, including sticky rolls with macadamia nuts are $3.49 each; bagels and other morning specialties are somewhat higher.
Now that the Ma'alaea General Store has seven months under its belt, the property is flourishing. It is open from 5:45 a.m. (early enough for the people who work on the boats to grab a cup of coffee) until 7 p.m., when the store closes. The cafe shuts down a bit earlier--food service ends at 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Friday through Sunday, food service continues until 4 p.m.
Marino credited Ed and Kathy O'Malley, his on-site managers, with assembling a first-class staff of about 20 employees. Ed O'Malley, whose food and beverage background includes Colleen's in Ha'iku and Rodeo General Store in Makawao, was quick to share kudos with his hard-working staff.
"Please mention my head cook, Dan Ferron," he urged. "Dan's the one who comes up with all the special sauces and the good stuff."
Ferron wasn't there on a Monday morning when the Maui Weekly stopped by, but we did meet a very pleasant and personable group of workers--Roxanne Silva kneading bread and Sabine Sacksteder stirring the chili. Clerks Katie Asuncion and Janie Johnson accommodated a steady stream of foot traffic inside.
Outside, the sunshine streamed over the lanai as people congregated to read the paper and chat at the tables and benches. They came early and kept coming.
"St. Patrick's Day, was our best day ever," Marino said. "The traffic starts early, builds to lunch and tapers off a little in the afternoon. Weekends are busy. Right now our biggest concern is seating. We've already expanded once and we're thinking about how to find more seating."
Ma'alaea General Store and Cafe is located at Ma'alaea Harbor across from Coast Guard Station. Call 242-8900 and visit maalaeageneralstore.com.