Hawaii native Mychal Boiser owns and operates Kona Kai Coffee Co. in Kent with his wife Maryum. Last month, Kona Kai won the King County Workforce Development Small Business of the Year. This comes after receiving the 2011 Restaurant Neighbor Award from both the Washington State Restaurant Association and National Restaurant Association in recognition of efforts to improve the lives of homeless youth through Kona Kai’s job-training program. Boiser took a moment to share his story and the inspiration for his work with IE Contributor Bao Nguyen.
Can you talk a little bit about the history behind Kona Kai Coffee and how it came about?
My wife has always had a passion for opening a coffee shop and I love cooking. So when we put our ideas together, we decided that we wanted to open up a coffee shop that represented our cultures. “Kona” means “lady.” “Kai” means “ocean,” and Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that grows coffee. When we refer to “Lady,” it’s the last queen of Hawaii, Lili’uokalani. I was inspired by the queen’s vision and her values and that’s what the foundation of our work consists of.
How did the idea of the nonprofit and the coffee shop come together?
We have compassion for the homeless, and we both knew that we could use our knowledge in the restaurant and hospitality industry to teach life skills to these individuals, and provide jobs in the food service industry.
Where do the students come from?
We collaborate with other groups such as the YMCA, YouthSource, the King County worker retraining program. They provide services that we can’t provide. We provide the job training part, while they provide counseling, bus passes, transitional homes, etc. We’re [providing] job training in the food service industry because it is a need in South King County.
South King County needs the same kind of services as everyone else, especially in the low-income community.
We serve kids who either got in trouble with the law or who are runaways. We work with them to get their GEDs, and we’re very diverse in the students we bring in. We reach out to the Hispanic, Asian, African and African-American communities to give them the experience they need to be a barista or a prep cook, and get their foot in the door. If they can gain the skills, they can pretty much get a job anywhere.
Is there a particular student success story you’d like to share?
We’ve had quite a few, and Zach is one of them. This is a young man who slept until noon or 1 o’clock in the afternoon, and rode his skateboard around at his last job.
After he finished our program, he went on to work for a restaurant supply company that’s very well-known.
He comes and visits us quite often to say thank you for giving him the opportunity to learn the skills and the importance of showing up to work every day. He’s been at his job for one year, and was able to buy a plane ticket for the first time using his own money. Listening to him and his story lets us know that what we’re doing is good work and helping a lot of the youth who come in through our doors.
How does your own history of homelessness shaped who you are? How has it shaped what you’re doing now?
I come from a dysfunctional family, and I know what it feels like to not have any guidance. But because I’m very goal-oriented, I was able to keep pushing forward. I understand that there are many people out there who are just seeking an opportunity to fit into the community. The premise for my wife and I is that we do not want to see a child ever go homeless or hungry. That’s how it all began, really.
We saw a child who had no voice, and we wanted to give voice to that child. But before we can help that child, we have to help their parents. If we don’t help that child, then they’re going to fall back into the same system as their parents. So if we can break that cycle of homelessness and poverty, then they have an opportunity to grow and be something bigger, and hopefully become an advocate to help others as well.
We just wanted to help [people] … of all cultures because Hawaii is such a diverse community. In Hawaii, we help each other because we have respect for each other’s cultures.
We train the students to learn the basics of culinary skills, the importance of customer service and presentation of food. The money that we generate through our restaurant goes back to our organization. As a social enterprise we try to be self-sustaining through the revenue-generating business.
Are there plans to expand?
We are currently looking at Tukwila, and hopefully, we’ll move up farther north. But right now, we are concentrating on getting our organization to be self-sustaining so we do need donors and we do need financial support.
How do you make a living if the coffee shop money goes to the nonprofit?
Right now it’s not as much as we made as we did in the corporate sector, but we are growing and we are getting a lot more support, but we need the support of others to get the word out to let people know that we are a community coffee house, and we care about the community.
How can people support you?
If you’re in Kent, just come in and buy coffee and lunch. We offer soups and salads, soups and gourmet sandwiches. People can also make donations online at halonetworkfoundation.org.