Moku Roots owners Erica Gale and Alexa Caskey met by chance on a mutual friend’s boat after living in the small town of Lahaina, Maui for over five years. Despite having dozens of mutual friends, we had somehow never crossed paths. At the time, Alexa had recently started a small gourmet popsicle company called Maui Tropsicles and was wanting to expand to a full-fledged restaurant built around the same principles, which were sourcing local ingredients and being as close to zero waste as possible. Erica had just received her MBA and was managing a very popular bar & restaurant in town but wanted to work with healthier food, and was also appalled about the wastefulness that is the norm in most restaurants. Just as they had been independently working on a similar restaurant concept, they were both chatting on the boat with different people about their ideas before realizing the similarities and ultimately deciding to partner up and open Moku Roots at Lahaina Gateway.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
Yes, we do! We are vegan and vegetarian ourselves, and we focused our menu on locally grown and culturally significant crops such as taro, breadfruit, cassava and a ton of other local crops and foraged wild foods. I (Alexa) personally don’t eat meat so I could never get behind a restaurant that served it, and I did our original menu (which has evolved so much and improved with the help of many people on our team, but mostly our head chef Nick Stowell). Even had I wanted to add meat, I don’t know how to cook it at all — I’ve never really cooked meat!
Our taro burger is the most popular item on the menu with all locally grown taro, local veggies and spices constituting the patty served on a homemade bun with local lettuce/tomato/onion and a Maui-grown macadamia nut aioli. I first made the taro burger because I had extra taro left over after making as many taro popsicles as I needed. I don’t even remember how I came up with what to add to it, but the recipe hasn’t changed at all since that first time I made it in my kitchen, except the batches are way bigger now!
Another one of our very popular menu items is a locally grown yuca/cassava (they are the same) and homemade coconut flour crust Hawaiian pizza topped with Maui Pineapple, homemade coconut bacon, and vegan macadamia nut cheese. We have an array of vegan burritos, wraps, “sushi” and salads as well. We started using experimenting with yuca because our friend and the restaurant’s mechanic, whose backdoor is actually adjacent to the restaurants back door gave us some that he had harvested. That particular yuca literally travelled less than 50 feet from farm to table. We first began really using lots of yuca with our falafel, one of our cooks was stoked on making falafel and we told him he could make it but he had to use local ingredients instead of garbanzo beans — and the falafel wrap has been one of our most popular menu items for at least a year now.
On the topic of vegan/vegetarian, we made the decision to include local eggs and honey with our vegan menu for the following reasons. Honey, from responsible local bee keepers is in my opinion the least harmful (to animals) sweetener compared to sugar which has resulted in huge amounts of deforestation and mono-cropping/chemicals etc. My sentiments behind eggs are slightly different. I believe you can have zero suffering eggs. We have chickens on our farm, they’re treated like our pets, they eat as well as my dog and they’re a very important part of the pesticide free bug control on our organic farm. Those eggs would otherwise go to waste, and people who want to eat eggs without the option of buying them from us would more than likely have to eat factory farmed eggs which are not zero suffering.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur?
Owning a restaurant means you always have to stay on your toes. There’s one moment in particular I was so caught off guard by and didn’t know how to handle. A bit of background — we offer no single use to-go containers at all, we have to-go tins available for purchase or on deposit, and at the time (it couldn’t have been 2 months after we opened) Maui had banned Styrofoam, but the ban hadn’t been enacted yet. We allow people to bring in their own to-go containers, and we plate it as if they were dining in and they put it in their own container. So, we received a huge to-go order over the phone and explained the to-go policy, and she agreed to bring her own containers. When she walked in with Styrofoam clamshells, I was so taken aback that I didn’t even know what to do! I didn’t want our food to be served on Styrofoam, I didn’t want anyone to see Styrofoam in our restaurant and think we used it, there were just so many things about that instance that made me uncomfortable. We ended up just politely saying to her afterwards that this time is okay but we don’t allow Styrofoam in here as its illegal in Maui.
The interaction wasn’t heated in any way, but she called back later and said she was made extremely uncomfortable by us (maybe equally as uncomfortable as we were) and asked for a refund, which we ended up giving her.
What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
In retrospect I would have given her our tins and told her that we normally charge a deposit but we trusted her to bring them back because of the situation. Nothing like that has happened since, but Styrofoam is now illegal so I’m sure that’s part of it.
We learned to communicate very clearly about our policies and make sure that the customer knows why we have them in place — to protect our environment, and our reputation!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
Staffing is always tough, but I think some of the challenges that have been unique to us, with the whole farm to table and especially zero waste thing is we are paving our own road here. We were asking vendors to do things they’ve never done before and customers to adopt policies they’ve never heard of. We don’t offer any single use to-go boxes, we have a portion of our menu that’s “handheld” burritos, sandwiches, wraps etc. that we wrap in Ti leaves grown here on island and tied with a banana tree husk. When we first opened we used taro leaves to wrap the food which are edible when cooked, but raw they make your throat itchy, and while we had that posted in multiple places on menu, and around the restaurant and physically told all new customers not to eat them raw, we had too many people call us asking why it felt like they ate a cactus because they’d tried to eat a little piece of the taro leaf. So we switched to Ti leaves which are not edible per se, but don’t have the throat itchy affect, and more importantly, don’t look edible whereas taro leaves do look edible. We also offer reusable metal tins on deposit for $10 for food that can’t be wrapped, and at first people were a little less accepting of this concept, but as we’ve been around over a year now, most people know about the policy and are super cool with it. Take it home, use it, bring it back if you want and get a full refund. Rarely does someone get kind of defensive about the policy anymore. We probably know how to avoid that better now also.
On the vendor end, trying to reduce waste to zero has been a challenge we are navigating better and better. We save the boxes from produce from local farmers and return them to the farmers next time they deliver. We also have changed our buying practices of things that aren’t grown here like olive oil, oats, etc. to ordering in bulk and refilling repurposed jars. We try to buy everything from spices and flours that we don’t make in big paper bags which we repurpose as a trash bag. We produce about 2–5 lbs. of trash per day for the entire restaurant and that goes into some kind of bag that is reused. We haven’t bought trash bags a single time in almost a year and a half. So getting vendors to accept our “no plastic packaging” policy has been a little bit of a battle, but now they all know us and are pretty good about it.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
I think in our case with our customer base of people who are health conscious and/or excited about innovative meals featuring local produce, I think the key is putting an unusual spin on a dish that has some level of familiarity. For instance we make a butternut squash alfredo, but it doesn’t have pasta noodles. Instead, we run the butternut squash through an attachment on the food processor that makes the squash itself into noodles, then we sauté them with a sun-dried tomato and Maui grown macadamia nut cream sauce we make in-house, with local kale, local mushrooms, and local broccoli. The presentation is gorgeous too with a balsamic reduction on the plate as an accent and garnished with fresh basil.
People get really excited about the yuca and coconut flour pizzas for the same reason. Everyone knows pizza, but very few people know you can make pizza crust from a locally grown root and what’s left over after you make coconut milk! So its gluten free and vegan and the Hawaiian pizzas are topped with our famous coconut bacon which also has kind of a cult following.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
Ooooh… my perfect meal. I love getting small portions of a few different dishes, so I would go with “taro fingers,” our taro burger patty cut into strips and sautéed on a kale salad with avocado, mac nut aioli, and maybe a slice of the Hawaiian pizza. I like something light and fresh with something indulgent! Plus a green juice or vegetable juice of some kind, or depending on the time of day, a handcrafted cocktail.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
Instagram! We follow so many great pages that I have to assume are made by someone with a professional lighting set up in their house without the pressures of serving customers so they can make every single detail perfect. There’s always this woman on Maui, Sunny Savage, who is a foraging genius and knows everything about wild plants so I like to talk to her about ideas for wild foods we can incorporate into our daily specials. Recently I picked a bunch of black raspberries and we garnished blueberry waffles with them and served it with butterfly pea tea so everything was kind of purply-blue on the plate. It was beautiful.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
We are working on our second location which will be a ground up build, the actual structure will embody the same zero waste, and sustainability ethos as our menu and restaurant practices! Think lots of solar panels (we are on Maui), living roof, plant walls, water catchment, fruiting trees etc.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateur to thrive and avoid burnout?
Hire a GM! We are still trying to find the right person to add another layer of management to our team. Be closed for one day a week if you can. We were closed one day a week in the first few months of our being open which was essential, now we are open 7 days/week.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me when I First Started My Restaurant” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Buy the real estate! Someone did tell us that, but it just wasn’t in our cards on this restaurant.
2. Be sure you have a GREAT lawyer, to one negotiate your lease and then that will represent you fearlessly in any future suits, because you will get sued for something. Probably a slip and fall, legitimate or not, or personnel issues commonly result in lawsuits.
3. However much $ you think it’s going to cost, it’s going to be double. Not sure how, but everything is always shockingly more expensive as a whole than you expected. Stuff just comes up all the time, and you need to be ready for it.
4. Think about how much you want to work and then hire accordingly. If you don’t want to work 50 hours/week, you need to hire someone who can do as good of a job as you can to work whichever portion of those hours you don’t want to work, plus whatever else the restaurant needs. We have tons of great people, but the manager personality — the one who is good at getting people to do what needs to be done and doesn’t cower to the pressures of wanting to be liked by everyone by letting stuff slide is kind of hard to find.
5. Be nimble! Although I’ve never heard anyone say that about restaurants, and I think we’ve done a great job at it anyways, but that’s got to be one of the most important things to have in the forefront of your mind when you’re inventing a concept. You don’t know what menu items are going to be popular, how busy you’ll be, etc. But you really have to read the crowd and follow the market, if not lead the market. I think we are leading the market in some regards, especially in the zero waste world. We are tucked nicely in a vegan forward market who is stoked about our concept. But back to being nimble. Be acutely aware of what is selling and what people are loving/aren’t stoked about and make changes quickly! We kept running out of everything the first few weeks because we were too tired to even look at our POS system after closing the restaurant and see how much of whatever sold. We were going through like 4 gallons of lavender lemonade/day which has a shelf life of at least a week, but we were only making a gallon at a time because I had no idea how much we were selling.
6. I’m going to add the 6th thing that I didn’t need to be told but I want to tell to everyone else. Don’t open a wasteful restaurant. The antiquated act of portioning out everything in single use plastic baggies before service has to stop! Saran wrapping every pan full of ingredients even though they all come with lids that fit perfectly has to stop. Stop with the plastic straws, and don’t automatically give out paper ones either. 99% of people are 100% capable of drinking a beverage out of a glass like an adult. Stop plastic ramekins for sauces. Don’t automatically give out plastic forks and spoons and knives and chopsticks with a to-go order that there’s a 99% chance of it getting taken home to be eaten on their plates with their own metal forks and that plastic fork, spoon and knife set is just going to get thrown into the landfill without ever being used. And don’t even get me started on restaurants that serve food on single use plates and flatware for dine-in. You need to think about how your actions, purchases, practices affect the planet not just take the cheapest option at the expense of the environment. And don’t ever ever ever sell plastic bottled water. And compost! Find someone, a farmer or an organization who wants your food waste and put some buckets around the kitchen to divert food waste from the landfill. Food waste is a terrible thing to end up in a landfill. While on the topic of food waste, stop being wasteful with food that is edible, be creative. Turn whatever didn’t sell of yesterday’s special into something else amazing so you don’t have to throw it away. It cuts down on food costs too obviously and that aspect of reducing waste goes with the being nimble idea too.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
It changes! But probably our burger of the week. We style our taro burger out in a different way every week. This week it’s called “jala at ya peño” and it has our famous taro patty on a homemade jalapeño bun, coconut bacon, pineapple in a homemade teriyaki sauce, tomato, onion and mac nut aioli.
If you like spicy, buffalo cauliflower wrap is amazing!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think it’s pretty obvious by now what my change would be, moving away from single use (plastics in particular) and towards a more sustainable future. I would also end all factory farming which would drastically minimize animal suffering- at least that imposed by humans, and help people by eliminating the need for such an immense amount of land to be used for animal feed and could actually feed people with biodynamic crops.