Tropical transplants take root in high desert towns

Kona Girl and Coconut Hut, Local Kine Grinds and L&L Hawaiian Barbe-que, Kaulana Na Pua O Hula and Da Big Tsunami. As an Asian Pacific community puts down roots in the region, business owners are fostering an appreciation of Hawaiian food, clothing and culture.

While vacationers flock to a climate balmy as paradise, some islanders head for the wind-whipped high desert.

"Jobs are hard to find in Hawaii," says Linda Egami Roberts, native-born Hawaiian and owner of Kona Girl, a store in Shoppers Square. For the past seven years she's sold shells and sarongs and all things South Pacific.

Last summer a similar shop washed up on the shores of Reno when Samantha Folototo Garlock opened Coconut Hut at Town Country Plaza on Vassar Street.

An Asian Pacific community of about 3,000 provides 20 percent of her customer base, says Garlock, but 80 percent of shoppers are people who vacationed in Hawaii, or simply love the trappings of the South Pacific.

Meanwhile, Crystal Moniz opened a Hawaiian restaurant, Local Kine Grinds, in Mound House. And national fast food eatery L&L Hawaiian Barbeque opened a store at Redfield Promenade and plans another at Ridgeview Plaza.

David Walley's Resort at Genoa hires Hawaiian trio Da Big Tsunami to play authentic music of the islands every Wednesday night. Band leader Ray Lavatai, who hails from Honolulu, says the band's been asked to play at Carson City street festivals this summer.

The hula dance classes offered in Carson City by islanders Ramona Burgess and Joreen Bates through their company, Kaulana Na Pua O Hula, moved to a larger space on stage at the Nevada Children's Museum in Carson City.

Now they book a pepe class for the tiny tots, keki for adolescents, wahine for younger women and a less strenuous makua for ladies of a certain age.

Pacific islanders leave paradise behind in search of jobs, health care and education, says Garlock.

Born on the island of Samoa, she moved to Los Angeles with her parents, who wanted her to have a U.S. education. She later attended Carson High School and graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, with a degree in business. She opened Coconut Hut with personal savings.

At Kaulana Na Pua O Hula, the handful of islanders in dance classes moved here when their husbands took job transfers to the mainland, says Burgess.

Women who would rather stay home and yet still sway to the rhythm of tropical breezes buy hula workout and Tahitian hip-hop vids at Coconut Hut and Kona Girl.

Garlock also plans to teach Samoan and Hawaiian dance at her store. She's performed the dances at the International Festivals held at Truckee Meadows Community College.

Young locals of island descent buy leis, traditionaly worn at high school graduations, says Garlock. And, those who have visited the islands buy more of what they liked there, such as macadamia nuts and papaya seed dressing.

Finally, even people who have never been to the South Pacific buy tiki hut home decor such as coconut monkeys, decorated dugout paddles and giant carved tiki masks.

But, say both store owners, the most popular and profitable line is clothing: colorful shorts and sarongs, and at Kona Girl, festival ikaika headdresses for natives of Tonga.

The stock is colorful and fun, but the challenge, says Roberts, is paying expensive freight charges because 99 percent of the items Kona Girl carries are shipped from Hawaii.

Memories of island food prompted Crystal Moniz to open Local Kine Grinds Hawaiian lingo for "really good food" in Mound House.

"I was missing it a lot," she says.

Moniz used a loan from Nevada Microenterprise Initiative to lease the former Old Time Cafe. Now she cooks up the foods she ate on her home island of Ohau like SPAM musubi, along with marinated teriyaki and Hawaiian barbeque.

She says, "Those who have been to the islands say this tastes like the real stuff."


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