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Created during Covid, new yogurt company seeks to grow

After trying plant-based yogurt on a trip to Australia and New Zealand in 2019, Aline Steiner searched for a similar product upon returning home to Hawaii.

When she realized the options were limited, Steiner — a chef and a certified holistic nutritionist — dreamed of creating her own. But with her job as a private chef, she simply didn’t have the time.

“And then Covid happened. I thought, ‘it’s now or never — we’re stuck at home, we have nowhere to go, no places to be, let’s do this,’” Steiner recalled.

After months of developing recipes, Steiner and partner Jon Roach, a web designer, launched Koko Kai Coconut Yogurt last summer.

Koko Kai creates non-dairy, coconut-based yogurt that utilizes local ingredients and has no added sugars or fillers. After debuting at the Kakaako Farmers Market, the brand has since expanded to retailers including Down to Earth, Whole Foods Market and select Foodland stores. Steiner said the company has grown sales by 200% year-over-year and they’re now focused on expanding distribution, broadening outreach, and developing new items.

While launching a business can be tough even in the best of times, launching during Covid-19 resulted in a few added challenges. Amid Covid shutdowns, there were delays in equipment deliveries and permit processes. Then, for the first several months, Steiner said, they couldn’t offer samples, relying on descriptions instead of taste to sell their product.

“Sometimes I woke up and said, ‘what am I doing? This is just crazy.’ But I knew I had a really good product — and I knew it was worth it to keep at it,” Steiner said.

What has been your approach in growing the company?

“Our first break was getting into the farmers market in Kakaako in August of 2020 — that was our first sellable arena. … In the fall of 2020, we started to get more comfortable with our production and bottling and started going after wholesale accounts. We are now in 18 locations throughout the state, including a couple of locations on the Big Island, and a couple on Kauai. Maui is my next focus.”

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What is your marketing strategy?

“Instagram has played quite a role. With my private chef business, I’ve always been a little bit social media shy, but I learned quickly that for a product company and for brand recognition, Instagram has a reach if it’s done properly. Another one has been showing up at the farmers market every week and talking to people individually and connecting with our customers. It helped spread the brand name, and we have gained a lot of recognition through that.”

Tell me about some of Koko Kai’s sustainability initiatives.

“When it came to selecting packaging, we chose reusable glass jars. We care about the environment, and we want to reduce single-use plastics, that was really important. … We utilized our location at the Kakaako Farmers Market to have a return, reuse and recycle of all of our glass jars — we don’t reuse the metal lids, but we invested in a high-temp sanitizing dishwasher so we can safely reuse all of the jars that are returned to us. To encourage people to bring the jars back, we donate 50 cents per jar every month to nonprofit organizations such as 808 Cleanups and Surfrider Foundation.”

What are your plans for near-term growth?

“Our [first] employee just started and he is going to be our production manager, so that will allow me to get out of the kitchen and grow the business. I’m going to be focusing more on marketing, distribution, streamlining the process, and finding more accounts. … I would love to bring the brand to the Mainland within a couple of years. But [for now] I want to focus on Hawaii — I would love to be available on all of the islands within a year.”

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