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It’s a busy day at the Hawaiian Hut. The little shop, just west of Redwood Road, offers custom-made leis—and it’s graduation season. Pelenaise Mataele, who owns the store along with her husband, Tupouniua Mataele, sits at a table covered with heaps of flowers, stringing orchids, carnations, ginger blossoms and plumeria into delicate and fragrant leis.
While high school and college graduations bring a flurry of orders for leis, Mataele says the Hawaiian Hut keeps busy all year selling leis for weddings, funerals, birthdays and other celebrations. And on Mother’s Day, demand for leis hits an all-time high. “When you buy a lei, you buy one for your mom, one for your grandma, one for your sister, one for your auntie,” says Mataele. “So Mother’s Day is our busiest day of the whole year.”
The Hawaiian Hut does a thriving business catering to the growing population of native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders living in Utah. The state ranks third, behind Hawaii and Alaska, for the percentage of its population who identifies as Pacific Islanders. While Pacific Islanders make up just 0.4 percent of the total United States population, they account for 1.3 percent of Utah’s residents.
Mataele says the Hawaiian Hut actually has a very mixed client base. For the most part, it’s non-Islanders who come looking for leis, as Islanders usually know someone who can send the flowers to them. Islanders come for the specialty foods the store carries: coconut milk, taro root and leaves, macadamia nuts, green bananas, corned beef, lamb, and seafood like mussels, clams, squid and sea urchin.
“We try to sell anything we think an Islander would want,” she says.
That’s kind of a tall order, considering that Pacific Islanders don’t really form a homogenous cultural group. About 20 different Pacific Islander ethnicities live in the United States, from three distinct regions in the Pacific—Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia—encompassing islands as varied as Samoa, Fiji, Guam, New Zealand and the Caroline Islands.
Island Culture in the Desert
The reason Utah boasts such a strong concentration of Pacific Islanders is simple. Missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began traveling to the Polynesian islands in the late 19th century. With religious ties to the state, Pacific Islanders began immigrating to Utah in later decades, particularly after World War II.
And the tide of Islander immigration continues—the state’s Islander population grew 72 percent from 2000 to 2010. Tongans and Samoans make up the vast majority of Utah’s Pacific Islander population. In fact, Salt Lake City has the largest population of Tongan Americans of any city in the United States—with West Valley City coming in second place.
The state’s Pacific Islanders bring much-needed cultural depth and richness to a state where 89 percent of residents identify as white or Caucasian. Shops like the Hawaiian Hut, George’s Hawaiian Shack and LOL Island Stylin’ not only offer staples for Islanders, but clothing, jewelry and crafts for a general clientele.
Restaurants like Mo’ Betta Steaks and Lanikai Grill Hawaiian Bar B Que serve up a taste of island cuisine. On a typical Saturday night, Lanikai Grill fills to capacity with a crowd—some Islanders, most not—seeking barbeque chicken and steak, fried katsu chicken and Spam musubi, a snack made by wrapping Spam in rice and seaweed, like sushi.
Bev Uipi, president of the Pacific Islander Chamber of Commerce in Utah, points out that many Pacific Islander businesses incorporate the word “Hawaiian” into their names, not because the proprietors are Hawaiian, but to attract non-Islanders to their businesses. “It’s just more familiar,” says Uipi.
Mataele and her husband, in fact, are native Tongans, although their shop is called the Hawaiian Hut.
“It’s Hawaiian-style food,” Seneti Pauni used to tell her baffled customers, who seemed entirely unfamiliar with Polynesian culture when she first began selling Polynesian food at fairs in Cache Valley. She started her catering business, now called Pauni Island Grill, in 2000. “It started very slow because people had to adjust their appetite to the food,” she says. “It’s a scary experience to face people and convince them to try something they’ve never tried before.”
Now, Pauni Island Grill is a familiar site in Logan and surrounding communities. The mobile catering company has attended numerous local fairs and events every year for more than a decade, and Pauni says repeat customers are happy to see her each year. In fact, she says she often can hear customers standing in line educating newbies about the Polynesian food—what the dishes are and what they taste like.