Right across from Keokea park, nestled into the vibrant jacarandas on the slopes of Haleakala, there’s a small coffee house that has been quietly humming with business for over three decades. Right next to Fong’s general store, which has a hundred years of old Maui history tucked into the building, Grandma’s Coffee House shares with its neighbor the same no-frills approach in getting to the heart of what people really want: good food, good people, and of course, good coffee.
Since the ‘80s, Grandma’s has delivered simple and authentic food with a home-cooked vibe. Behind the classic, plantation-green storefront with the image of Grandma in the window, the restaurant serves breakfast staples like eggs, waffles, pancakes, and house coffee with the bygone price tag of $1.50, along with a fuller coffee menu with all the standards. The menu also features coffee-shop standbys like BLTs, club and egg-salad sandwiches, and freshly-baked pies, cakes, and muffins.
The interior of the small shop has rustic charm, humble and unassuming but still nice, in the way your grandma’s cluttered living room is nice. Old pictures of owner Alfred Franco’s family, newspaper clippings, and paintings cover the walls, creating a homey feel. Beautiful wood-topped tables cluster in cozy groups, with friends, families, and singles gathered around them contentedly enjoying their comfort food. Staff bustle behind glass cases stuffed with home-baked goodies as customers line up to place their order.
This small-town shop’s roots begin with the story of Alfred Franco’s family, who migrated from Puerto Rico to Hawai‘i a few generations back, “looking for work, like everybody else,” said Franco when we sat down with him over some coffee cake on the lanai at Grandma’s. Our coffee had been processed on Franco’s 100-year-old roaster. “My great-grandparents brought coffee to Maui in the late 1800s,” he told us. His past, while influencing his passion for good coffee, also continues to connect him to the community. One day, an elderly gentleman, a former police chief, came in and told Franco, “When I was a kid, I picked coffee for your great-grandma, out there on Kaupakalua across from Calasa’s.”
Alfred Franco is a man who knows how to talk story and believes in the magic of life. The morning we sat down to talk, the pretty lanai was packed with Saturday brunch-goers and full of clear morning light. Coffee and banana trees crowded around the railings, the view was clear and long, and regulars and friends clapped him on the back frequently as we chatted.
“This place has been built from tradition,” Franco told us. Growing up in Makawao, “everyone in the neighborhood was a part of my family.” Evenings, his extended family gathered in his grandmother’s garage. Franco’s grandmother, Dominga – or Grandma Minnie from Makawao – presided over the aunties, uncles, and cousins as the children played and the adults jammed music and drank Minnie’s home brew. “Coffee, food, and music is what brought our family together,” said Franco.
When Franco turned 18, his dad asked him, “OK boy, what are you gonna do?” With his deep family connections, Franco knew he could easily enter civil service, but he knew that wasn’t his path. Instead, he started helping out his grandma.
Soon, Franco started selling packages with a handwritten “Grandma’s Coffee” scrawled on the brown bag at the old swap meet, when it used to be held at the old Fairgrounds on Pu‘unene behind the Post Office. Then, he started selling to about 20 stores on island. “It was a labor of love. It’s something you do, not for the money, but for the personal satisfaction,” Franco said.
He did that for a couple years as his coffee gained popularity. Then he approached his grandma and said, “This is what I want to do, but I need your permission.” After getting the approval of his grandparents, he knew he needed his Grandma’s image to complete his logo. “Just draw an old lady,” Grandma Minnie scoffed, but Franco had a friend draw it up.
He had to jump through a lot of lease and permit hurdles. After also earning the blessing of the formidable Mrs. Fong next door, who initially eyed him warily, he started jumping through the county permit hoops. After years of running around to different offices with no success, he went straight to the mayor at the time, Hannibal Tavares, and showed him his business plans, along with pictures of his family. When Mayor Tavares looked at his pictures, he exclaimed, “I was raised next door to your grandma! She has the best coffee in the world!” He picked up the phone and started yelling at people. The ball was officially rolling, Maui style.
Things didn’t initially start off a success; there wasn’t much up going on in Keokea thirty years ago. But Franco had a vision. “Money couldn’t make this happen; it was determination,” Franco said. He refused financial backing from everyone, and started “with nothing,” he said. He was also careful to read the signs from the universe. In the middle of all the permit drama, he planted some straggling coffee trees Grandma’s Coffee House yard. His coffee plants were not thriving, and it depressed him. It was not a good sign. Then one day, he went out and saw a small sign of growth in his coffee plant, and had a feeling that everything was going to work out. “That’s how life is; you gotta see the signs. I don’t know who in the business world would bet on that!” he laughed. “We struggled and scraped, but here we are today,” he said.
And today, Grandma’s is on the map, with a strong local following and multiple features on national television. The coffee house also appears in international travel magazines and guides. None of this exposure has affected the low-key, local’s only, authentic vibe of the place. Despite international coverage, the customers are “mostly locals,” Franco said. “I do that on purpose.” That much was clear during our breakfast, as regulars came and went, shaking his hand and even chiming in with answers to our questions. “Tour companies would call me up, and I say, you guys are welcome to come in whenever you want, but you’re going to wait in line like everyone else.” He has also kept very local prices; “that sign over the counter is eight years old,” he points out with a laugh.
Just like the permits, the exposure came because Franco willed it to. Years ago, watching TV in a hotel in Kona while visiting his family – he didn’t have cable at home – he saw the Food Network for the first time. “We belong in that show,” Franco told his then-wife. Very early the next Monday morning, he was baking in the shop when the phone rang. “Who’s this?” he asked. It was the producer of the show he was watching, asking if they could feature Grandma’s. “Sure,” he said.
That’s not to say Franco takes every opportunity for publicity, being more concerned with the intention behind the offers he gets. Last year, “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” gave him a ring. “I looking around at the shop, seeing how busy we were,” he said. The producer told him that this kind of publicity can come with a curse, as sometimes businesses can go under from being too busy and losing control of their service and quality. His ears perked to the negativity in her words. “I see the signs,” Franco told us. “You know what, I told her: we’re not ready for that. Thank you very much.”
It wasn’t the last opportunity. Recently, the Travel Channel approached him about Man vs. Food. “Let’s do it,” Franco thought. “It came with a good vibe.” That episode will come out very soon.
“Magic in life is everything,” Franco told us, describing how he’s relied on this instinct for intuition to guide him throughout. Like the day, early in Grandma’s history, while hustling and just trying to make it work, he went outdoors to look for a sign and saw a small spark of growth in the coffee saplings. “That’s when I knew it was going to be okay,” Franco said.
But, in fact, everything did turn out okay, with hard work, sprinkles of intuition, and building relationships with his customers and staff.
Franco is also someone who respects and believes in the people that work for him. He often hires young people with no experience, and mentors them through the business from dishwashing to cooking, baking, serving, and managing. He retains his employees for years. “They come here and they don’t know how to boil water, but by the time they leave here, they can bake, take care of business, make sandwiches, they’re socializing; ready to go out in the world and do whatever they want to do from there. And they have a good time. I always say I want two lines: a line of customers, and a line of people who want to work here,” Franco said.
As the morning turned toward noon, we wrapped it up, though we probably could have talked for a few more hours. Every once in a while, while interviewing folks for stories, there is someone that is completely effortless to talk to. Talking to Franco was like talking story with your favorite uncle. The stories flowed, warm and energizing like Grandma’s coffee, and the laughs came easily. I could easily picture his history, his grandparents’ garage full of extended family, his grandmother the matriarch presiding over everyone, bustling around pouring her hand-picked, home-roasted coffee. We walked away feeling like he’d given us a little more than his stories.
On our way out, his longest-term employee came out of the kitchen to show us something. “Welcome to the number-two coffee shop on Maui!” he joked, opening the “Best Of” MauiTime issue, where Grandma’s didn’t quite make the cut. “He’s been doing that all day, to every customer,” Franco said, laughing and leading us outside.
Franco is someone who loves this kind of fun, who trusts his instincts and his staff. “Magic is everywhere; you can create anything you want,” he told us. “I’ve done it.” And so he has.
Cover design by Darris Hurst
Photos by Sean Michael Hower
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