Maui has received an injection of flavor from a handful of new, creative restaurants that have opened in the last year.
A prime example is Moku Roots. New to the Lahaina Gateway shopping complex less than a mile from Lahaina’s Front Street commercial corridor, the vegetarian restaurant features an inventive, constantly changing menu and a focus on sustainability.
Co-owners Erica Gale and Alexa Caskey met on a mutual friend’s boat outing a few years ago and immediately recognized their common interests. Gale has worked in hospitality and restaurant management and was frequently appalled by the amount of waste produced in commercial kitchens. Caskey, a vegetarian for more than a decade, has a deep commitment to environmentally friendly practices, worked in health food shops and had started making her own frozen treats, Tropsicles, from mangoes growing in her backyard. While Caskey had more sustainability and farming know-how, Gale brought more business expertise to the venture.
The first step was to start a farm, Mala Akala, that Caskey manages with some staff, where they produce many of the fruits, vegetables and other goods they need for the restaurant. The 5-acre farm grows a wide range of produce, including eggplant, casava, cucumbers, tomatoes and papaya, and is also home to chickens to supply Moku Roots with eggs.
“We had a shared vision,” Gale said. “We wanted to have a great healthy, community gathering space, and we saw a lot of opportunities to incorporate zero waste into the restaurant.”
After some searching, they settled into a spot that was a former pizza restaurant, and, after some renovations, opened in May 2018. Gale and Casket strive for a zero-waste process and have introduced several measures to reduce single-use items and other trash.
Takeaway items like sandwiches are wrapped in ti leaves and banana husks, and there are reusable stainless steel tins available for $10 purchase or deposit. Customers are encouraged to bring their own reusable containers, as well.
“Alexa has a bunch of papayas, and the papaya stem is hollow,” Gale said, “Usually the stems have fallen off or need to be trimmed, so it’s a super renewable source of straws. Of course, plastic straws are not a good idea for the environment, but even paper straws need to biodegrade and be produced.”
On the supply side of the business, they have pushed their vendors to collaborate on the least wasteful way to deliver goods.
“We were getting tortillas from a place a few blocks away, but they would come in sealed plastic bags,” Caskey said. “We’d get 30 dozen a week, so that was 30 plastic bags we didn’t want. So, I scoured the internet for an alternative and found these super retro Tupperware pie containers. We dropped those off and reuse them, and have saved countless plastic bags in the last six months.”
The vegetarian menu, originally crafted by Caskey and Gale and now helmed by head chef Nick Stowell, rotates new dishes in regularly depending on seasons and availability.
Their custom taro burgers have been a hit, and they have started providing them wholesale to a couple of other restaurants on the island. They did not want to make falafel out of the traditional garbanzo beans because they are not grown locally, so one of the kitchen staff whipped up a version using yuca that they say is “moist on the inside and crisp on the inside, better than the original.” They also serve a Sunday brunch with a new menu each week.
As Moku Roots has garnered attention for their food and business practices, some of the sustainable initiatives have caught on. At least one Maui bar has started using papaya stems for straws.
“Someone asked if we would mind if they wrapped their sushi in ti leaves to save on packaging,” Caskey said. “Of course we don’t mind. That’s what we want the world to be doing. We’re not trying to patent this. We want to inspire change in the community.”