There are more than 13,000 Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians in the Valley, and though there are several nice Hawaiian restaurants, it wasn't until this year that the metro Phoenix community had its very own Pacific Island market.
The Aloha Island Market debuted this past January, at 454 N. Lindsay Road in Mesa. The idea, says JP Loelu, who runs the shop with his wife, Laukau, was simple: "There’s tons of Polynesians around here. They need a market to come to get their resources. That's our dream.”
As of May, when Aloha expanded into a second room next door, the market is divided into two sections. The food-oriented part of the operation includes a menu with daily specials, serving up a different island favorite made fresh each day of the week (teriyaki chicken and kalua pork on Fridays, spam musubi on Saturdays). The shop also carries a variety of Polynesian groceries and frozen items.
“We know what island products the Polynesian people around here miss [from back home], and we track them down and get them imported here,” Laukau says. "It's funny because we thought it was just me and a few others who [craved island food]. Come to find out, the whole Melanesian, Micronesian and Polynesian community in Phoenix has been longing for the same thing.”
Bestsellers include Hawaiian mochi butter cake mix and Haupia mix, a popular coconut pudding dessert. Also, Golden Coin Shio Mai pork hash dumplings, which JP says "was brought to Hawaii by a religious group in the '50s and it really took off. Polynesians love Shio Mai.”
But it's not just Hawaiian fare at Aloha. They branch out into many other Pacific Islands, with products like Watties tinned spaghetti from New Zealand, UFO Burger-flavored chips from Fiji, and Marco Polo shrimp snacks (which are kind of like pork rinds but made with shrimp).
The other side of Aloha sells Polynesian clothing, gifts, and trinkets. There are traditional Hawaiian shirts, handmade leis, wood carvings, authentic jewelry, and lots of flowers.
Quitting their jobs (Laukau worked at Southwest Airlines, JP worked in mining and property management) and starting a small business in the middle of a pandemic was a risky move, but so far it's paying off. Word has been steadily spreading in the Polynesian community, Laukau says.
“Polynesians are close with their families and friends, and if they like a place they sure do tell everybody about it. We get a lot of people who bring in their friends or family who have come in from out of town.”
JP puts it more bluntly: “Our store is the first island market here in the state. There’s nothing like this. We have the market cornered.”
Aloha Island Market, 454 N. Lindsay Road, Mesa.