There simply is no better place on the Big Island of Hawaii to feast on mounds of buttery, world-renown and locally-grown Hawaiian macadamia nuts than at Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company’s spacious showroom located in the hills above the small West Hawaii port town of Kawaihae.
It’s a high-ceiling storefront awash in sunlight filtering through its ranks of bay windows, which illuminates a maze of tables, counters, bins and display racks overflowing with cans and pouches of the company’s namesake nut in a dizzying variety of island-inspired flavors. Within seconds of stepping through the door into what’s informally known as the “nut house”, visitors are tempted with free samples of island-grown coffee from its various coffee growing regions, such as Kona, Ka’u and Hilo, all with their own distinctive aromas, flavors and bodies.
The coffee stand gives way to a small cafe serving up full-sized espressos, smoothies and scoops of homemade ice cream. The air inside the showroom smells downright heavenly: wafts of freshly brewed coffee mixed with the smell of buttery peanut brittle and roasted nuts dusted with delectable toppings, which leads many visitors with rumbling stomachs to seek out the store’s long wooden table filled with free samples of its macadamias in flavors both sweet and savory.
“There simply is no better place on Big Island to feast on mounds of buttery, world-renown and locally-grown macadamia nuts than at Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company”
This samples station is the focal point of the entire facility for most visitors. They crowd around the table gingerly working small metal tongs, picking the nuts out of larger bowls two and three at a time and dropping them into the disposable paper cups provided. Some seem partial to the sweet varieties; Kona Coffee Glazed, Butter Rum Glazed and Coconut Glazed, and gleefully fill up their respective cups again and again with the glossy sugar-coated delights, scarfing them down by the handful.
Others like the savory flavors best; Island Onion, “Chili Peppah”, Wasabi, Soy Sauce – even SPAM flavored for the truly adventurous foodies who want to try something distinctly Hawaiian. This group does a better job of savoring each nut, but nonetheless can still be spotted upending their cups from time to time with a satisfying crunch as if to take a shot of liquor. Then there are the visitors who are nut-purists, who forego the fancy sugar and spice variations and focus their attention on the sample bowls full of lightly salted and salt-free dry-roasted macadamias. These nuts are in their most un-doctored form, with the subtle buttery flavors brought out by the roasting process really coming through, not overpowered by the tastes of onions and chilis and soy sauce.
Some people never make it past the free samples, and spend most of their time in the showroom lingering around them hoping that uniformed employees will materialize from behind a side-door and refill the bowls as they do from time to time. Others load up several cup-fulls and take off down the aisles, browsing the different sized packages of the same nuts they are simultaneously trying, found in sizes ranging from snack-size pouches to formidable five pound bulk bags. They find other island-made products, too, interspersed with the cans, bags and pouches of nuts: honey, granola, cooking oils, chocolates, cookies, bags of bulk coffee and enticing-looking kettle corn.
In one corner of the showroom is the entrance to a long, wide hallway lined with still more racks and baskets of goodies lining one wall. The hallway’s opposite wall is a made up of a row of windows looking out onto the factory floor where employees adorned in hair caps and gloves dart to and fro running the network of curious looking machines with funny names: Lid Capper, Flavor Panner, Can Labeler. This is what is called “The Cannery”.
At the bottom of every window is a placard giving a brief explanation of each machine’s purpose, and visitors making their way from window to window down the hall can get a good step-by-step idea of how macadamias go from bulk raw shelled nuts to the flavorful morsels found in their sample cups. Pouches and bags of finished product slowly roll off the assembly line in a slightly hypnotizing and unquestionably mouth-watering procession. Soon they will be packed up and shipped off to supermarkets and grocery stores across the entire island, as well as to neighboring islands, the U.S. mainland, and to the doorsteps of international customers on nearly every continent.
At the end of the hallway is a mini-theater of wrought iron chairs set in rows facing a flatscreen television. A short narrated informational film about the farming and processing side of the business is shown on a continuous loop, which helps to fill in the information gaps left by the placards, and to answer the frequently asked questions about nut aficionados. The theater is the natural endpoint to the self-guided tour, and from there visitors usually meander back past the factory windows and informational placards to the sample table to load up one more time before hitting the checkout counter.
A Boon To Hawaiian Agriculture, And A Great Place To Shop For Gifts
Macadamia nuts are native to Australia, where Aboriginal peoples utilized the hearty, prolific wild trees as a crucial source of “bush food”. It wasn’t until the late 19th Century that an Australian plant collector and sugarcane plantation manager named William Purvis came to Hawaii’s Big Island with the archipelago’s first macadamia nut sapling in his luggage. Purvis planted it along the island’s eastern Hamakua Coast, where legend tells that it is still growing to this day.
Hawaii became the first large-scale mac nut producer in history, and for decades held the title of biggest crop yield. Since then, competition from countries like Australia, South Africa and China have bumped Hawaii from the top slot, although the tens of millions of pounds of in-shell nuts produced every year in the islands is still a remarkable feat considering their tiny geographic size. Today, there are hundreds of independent small-scale growers across the state who harvest tens of millions of dollars worth of nuts every year.
Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company is supplied by roughly 200 different independent Big Island nut farms, many of which are multi-generational and multi-family enterprises that depend entirely on the orchards for their livelihoods. So, visitors to the company’s showroom can feel good about the products they are buying; that they’re supporting local small-scale farmers making a living on an island with limited economic opportunities for many people, as well as the roughly 60 full-time employees who run the factory and showroom.
It’s also a great place to find gifts for friends and family members back home. Many of the tables in the showroom are taken up by gift displays, from assorted samplers of nuts and chocolates to colorfully painted cookie tins wrapped up in bows. The tins, adorned with motifs like beautiful tropical flowers, sea turtles, and dolphins are sure to still delight long after the scrumptious morsels inside have long since been eaten. There are neatly stacked pyramids of individual dark, milk and white chocolates, some of which feature mac nut “fines”, in their miniature plastic jars. For visitors who find themselves planning a trip to Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company during the holidays, keep an eye out for table displays of seasonal chocolate peppermint bark made with macadamia nut pieces and either milk or dark chocolate.
How To Get There
Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company’s factory and showroom is located along Maluokalani Street, which is found off of Akoni Pule Highway, otherwise known as Highway 270, roughly one mile northwest of the small industrial Big Island port town of Kawaihae (“kah-vie-high”).
It can be a bit tricky to find on the first visit, partly because the factory is located in a part of town that seems incongruous to an upscale foodie destination. Surrounding the factory are car repair shops, concrete companies, auto detailing businesses and other industrial type stores, leading many newcomers to wonder if they are in the right place. But fear not, as the long, curving and slightly steep one-lane concrete road leading to the factory’s parking lot will eventually come into view, with its border of well-manicured hedges.
It’s a great place to stop and pick up car, beach and hiking snacks, some truly gourmet coffee and perhaps a few small gifts for envious friends back home. And Hamakua Macadamia Nut Company is conveniently located just up the road from some spectacular Kona-side beaches including Puako – otherwise known as “Beach 69” – Mauna Kea Beach, Hapuna Beach State Recreation Area and Spencer Beach Park. It’s also very near Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site – the massive stone castle by the sea – which is covered in its own dedicated article.