|Story by David Choo
Photos by Elyse Butler
The sign’s faded, the building’s paint is peeling. It’s easy to miss the two-room, seventy-plus-year-old cottage that for decades was home to Hanapepe’s lone saimin stand. But if you follow the savory, nutty scent of bubbling soybean oil and frying taro, you’ll find Dale Nagamine manning the woks. The 56-year-old farmer is the owner, operator and sole employee of the Taro Ko Chips factory, located at the bend in the road at the entrance to Kaua‘i’s Hanapepe Town. If you’ve blinked and missed it, look for Stanley Sakoda, Nagamine’s buddy and the unofficial mayor of Hanapepe, who might be waiting outside to greet you and show you in through the back door.
You might not realize it, but producing the Pacific’s answer to the potato chip is an arduous and unforgiving process. Nagamine’s parents started Taro Ko (named for Ko Road, where the family taro farm is located) in 1985. The Nagamines, who were longtime farmers of Kaua‘i lehua taro, started frying chips as a way to supplement their income. When his parents passed away, Dale took over the business, working six to seven days a week, eight hours a day. He grows his own taro with the help of a friend, and he single-handedly peels, slices, fries, bakes, seasons (liberally, with garlic salt) and packages his chips. Usually, he sells out every bag.
Lately a lot of tourists have been finding Taro Ko, which is amazing considering that few Kauaians are even aware of it. Several years ago travel writers discovered Taro Ko, and thanks to the Internet, Nagamine now caters to a steady stream of akamai (clued-in) tourists and only one local store, Sueoka’s in Köloa. “I couldn’t supply enough to other markets—I’d run out of taro,” says Nagamine. “Whatever I grow, I cook. That’s it. I dream small.”