Surfers Coffee Bar enlivens a once-forsaken block
by Tiffany Hervey | Jan 23, 2013
During the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Top Hat Bar in Wahiawa was hit. It closed for three days and reopened on Dec. 10, 1941 with the charging mantra that its doors would never be closed again. And the bar stayed open seven days a week, year-round, until early 2009, when it shut down for good.
Surfing The Nations (STN), a nonprofit organization, purchased the building and moved in. They opened Surfers Coffee Bar in the summer of 2011 after cleaning decades of nicotine off the walls. A bigger challenge was the neighborhood.
This block of Kamehameha Highway was considered by many to be the center of sex, drugs and violence on the North Shore. Neighboring businesses included porn shop Divine Pleasures, liquor store Market 88 and exotic dancing venue Club Texas. For most, it was an area to avoid.“We learned real quick that we lived in the bad part of town,” recalls STN co-founder Cindy Bauer as she looks out the window from the plush seats of the coffee bar.“This was where no one wanted to wander.”
STN, founded in 1997, had been looking for a place to call home after a series of rental situations fell through. The 15-unit, three-story apartment building behind the old, rundown bar in Wahiawa looked like a perfect place to house their staff, and they could use the bar for a meeting room.
“We knew this was going to be a rough neighborhood,[but it] seemed to work for us because we are for those who are voiceless and the at-risk youth here on the street,” Bauer says. STN feeds more than 3,000 people a week, most of them working poor.“Maybe three percent are homeless but a vast majority are households working hard to make it,” she adds. STN also tutors at-risk youth three times a week.
The block was such an eyesore that for years, parents told their kids to “look forward, don’t look over there,” Bauer says. When Leilehua High School students came down to hand out food for a school project, they told the STN staff that not one of them had ever walked on that side of the street before.
The Giving Surfer
STN thought they’d try to improve the neighborhood, and in less than a year, the owners of the neighboring buildings had agreed to sell. The nonprofit put its first building up as collateral, held a huge fundraiser for a down payment and purchased the rest of the block.“We were just the new kids on the block that weren’t smart enough to know we couldn’t do it,” Bauer says.“Sometimes, when you don’t realize you can’t, you do it.”
At present, Surfers Coffee Bar is the only open business on the block. The original bar from the 1930s remains in a spacious room filled with plush armchairs and tables, with a desk area where one could do some writing or read without feeling distracted. The walls are decorated like a surf museum with eponymous memorabilia and art, thanks to STN co-founder Tom Bauer’s enthusiasm for the sport.“Our motto is ‘surfers giving back,’” he says.
“Surfers in my day were takers, but today we’re trying to market them as givers,” Bauer says, adding that he hopes the coffee shop also helps to remarket Wahiawa.“Since it is the gateway to the North Shore, we feel that Wahiawa has an amazing responsibility,” he says,“[and] surfers have the responsibility to make this a better place.”
STN’s goal is to bring community-centered businesses into the six available storefronts on the block; Chaminade University’s design school is planning parking and gardens for the buildings.
Surfers Coffee Bar’s menu practices what STN preaches by supporting local business. It carries organic Kona Estate coffee ($2–$3 a cup). All espresso shots and drinks are made from Waialua Estate coffee beans, grown and harvested on Oahu’s North Shore and roasted in Honolulu. This totally local coffee fuels the menu’s latte ($3–$4), Americano ($2.40–$3.10), cappuccino ($3) and mocha ($3.50–$4.60) drinks.