Islands Café co-owner Robb Harding grows pensive at mention of the wildfires in Maui.
In just seven years, Harding – with partner in life, parenthood and business Jalene – has turned their continuing love affair with Hawaii, and the island/surfer culture there, into a thriving coffee-and-food business success in White Rock and South Surrey.
Weathering the COVID pandemic, the local chain – which started in 2016 with the Makai (sea) location on Johnston Road in White Rock – was joined by the Mauka (mountain) location at Grandview Corners in late 2017 and this summer added the Pali (bluff) locationat 12901 16 Ave. in Ocean Park.
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Musing about Islands’ success, however, his thoughts inevitably turned to the tragic series of fires which devastated places he knows well.
“It’s super sad,” the former Elgin Park grad said.
The early August fires, driven by high winds, laid waste to wide areas of the island of Maui, particularly in the historic town of Lahaina, where 115 people perished and hundreds more remain missing.
‘I lived in Lahaina for a year and a half ,” he recalled. “That was during a time in my life when I felt pretty unhappy.”
At 20, he was in his second year at the University of Victoria when he was diagnosed with cancer. Fortunately, after a a course of chemotherapy he was given a clean bill of health – but his illness led him to question the direction of his life.
Following a childhood dream, the Saskatoon native sold up his belongings and moved to Hawaii to learn to surf.
Living in the relaxed environment of Lahaina, and getting to know the culture there, really helped his outlook he said.
“The locals helped me along,” remembered Harding, adding that he wants to give back to the people who so generously welcomed him back then.
“We’d like to do something at the cafés for Hawaii, particularly for Lahaina,” he said.
Also a painter and multi-media artist – many of his large-scale canvases help boost the artistic vibe at the Islands venues – Harding said he is contemplating creating an art show to raise funds for the devastated community.
“I’ve kept thinking of so many places I knew – I started painting again,” he said, adding he would like proceeds from art sales to contribute to the school system there.
“Hopefully we can raise a bit of money. Over the next month or so I’m going to try to do 10 paintings, although its hard for me to want to sell art now. These days I only paint every now and then – I find that doing doing creative work takes lot of energy and at the end of the day I don’t have it.”
In eight years in the islands, becoming part of Oahu’s North Shore scene, Harding learned to surf, built boards – and became a partner in a coffee shop that served healthy, energy-building food to surfers who converged on the area from around the world.
That experience helped set the style for the Islands Café brand – including the poke (tuna) bowls, flatbreads and acai bowls (the latter featuring a berry of Brazilian origin, but which has became a very popular item among the North Shore surfers).
In addition to paintings and photography, each café is decorated with plants, casual furnishings including hand-crafted laquered tables and benches, and subtly-stated Hawaiian accents such as the hula lampshades that adorn the counter at each café.
The Hardings aren’t just reliant on Hawaiian nostalgia – as marketers and distributors of their own brand of island-grown coffee, they’re back there an average of three times a year to visit the coffee farm and gather new ideas.
As parents of a three year-old daughter, Coco – whose birth coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic, they are determined to give her experiences of the outside world that she didn’t receive during the lock-down of her earliest years, Harding said.
The pandemic also delayed expansion of their growing chain, he added.
“We were looking for a third location for three years,” he said. “Location really does matter, but a place in a shopping centre where there is high-end retail is really hard to find, and you end up paying a lot.”
Fortunately the closure of an existing coffee shop in Ocean Park gave them the opportunity they needed, he said.
“It’s a little surreal – Ja and I both grew up a block from the store and we were around here all through high school.”
The expansion was not undertaken lightly, he said.
“One thing we were concerned about is that we do have three locations in such a close area – are we saturating the market? The White Rock café is close to the centre of town, the Grandview Corners café has a shopping centre right there, but in Ocean Park, it’s different. It’s a busy parking lot, but it’s an older community around it.”
Fortunately, many locals like to gather at the café’s patio, and traffic since their June opening, while not yet comparable to the Mauka and Pali stores, is encouraging.
Each of the cafés has developed its own distinct personality, Harding said – a lot to do with the personalities of the staff and the managers.
But he gives Jalene most of the credit for creating a smooth operating model, building and training an effective team and fostering a positive attitude among employees, who now number 25.
Many come to the store as beginners in the retail world, but gain valuable experience, eventually assuming management responsibilities.
“I’m just a glorified janitor, basically,” he laughs. “I drive around and fix things, 24-7.”
At a time when many businesses have been forced to close due to increasing costs and skyrocketing rents, Islands would seem to have discovered a magic formula to success.
But Harding insists the formula is simple – to provide “affordable, quality food in a ‘surf’ atmosphere” and to make sure that customers are served quickly, efficiently and in a friendly way.
“Customers are number one with us and we do have regulars who stay around,” he said. “But 80 per cent of our customers are only in our store for five minutes.”
Offering special entertainment evenings, and being part of events such as the White Rock Buskers and Comedy Festival has also attracted business, he said.
“We try to elevate everything we do in some way – and every season do something new, a food idea or a drink idea to keep the variety going.”