A little restaurant in sunny Lahaina has been making waves with tasty local options that are healthy for both bodies and the Earth. Since opening its doors in May, Moku Roots has been serving vegetarian food in an almost completely zero-waste process, and the community has taken note. “We were so much busier from the first day than we’ve ever thought we would be. And it’s just kept growing,” said Erica Gale, owner, who along with her partner Alexa Caskey has taken a strong approach in running the zero-waste restaurant that serves yummy local food.
“Everyone knows the term farm to table,” said Gale when I sat down with her, “but we’re doing farm to table to farm, and it closes that gap.” All the compost created in the shop goes back up to Caskey’s farm, Mala ‘Akala in Launiupoko, where they raise organically managed vegetables that are then used in the restaurant.
“We’re doing as much as we can to go zero-waste and eliminate as much waste as we can,” said Gale. “We’re able to eliminate the waste of the products coming in, because we get everything from our farmers. You don’t need to have your avocados in a package, or your fruit in plastic.” Working in the service industry for years, Gale could see how much waste just one evening could generate. “I knew that there was a better way,” she thought.
The women have incorporated a sustainable, iconic solution to the problem of throwaway wrappers. According to Gale, “We designed our menu so that most things are hand held, and so any sandwiches, wraps, rolls, that kind of thing, we will wrap in a taro leaf.” One regular customer even reported cooking and eating the taro leaves his sandwiches were wrapped in.
For those things that aren’t handheld, like salads and curries, the shop doesn’t offer single-use convenience packaging. “We have these reusable silver tins, and you can purchase one for $10, and you can put it on deposit so if you want to bring it back, we’ll give you your money back,” said Gale. “We don’t use single-use anything. We have bamboo sporks, also on deposit. Same with our mason jars, a $3 deposit.” Customers can bring their own containers, too.
The response to the restaurant’s lack of wasteful products has been “really, really good for the most part.” A couple people have balked at the extra cost if they’re unaware of the restaurant’s stance on single-use disposable products, “and I get that,” said Gale. “But we’re holding firm.” It’s a strong and ultimately brave choice for a business to make, and Moku Roots is the only restaurant doing it.
“This is something that is so different, so some people are kind of taken aback by it,” Gale said, but “for the most part people are so stoked. We have a great local following, but also the tourists come in and are like, ‘Wow, we need this in California.’ It’s really cool to see that shift in mindset. I think that now is the time when people are more receptive to it.” And it’s making a difference: Between composting, lack of wrapping on their products coming in, and no front-end single-use waste, the shop generates just a tiny bathroom-sized trash can of actual waste each day.
That’s not even considering the food, which is fresh, organic, and local, with lots of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options, and features multicultural and ever-changing options. “I would say about 90 percent of our menu is vegan; our chef, Nick, is vegan, and she’s the one who is coming up with a lot of recipes, but we do have eggs and cheese on our menu. Real eggs and real cheese,” Gale added.
“Our biggest seller by far are our taro burgers,” Gale told me. They get several hundreds of pounds of wetland taro from farmers in Keanae, and use their house-made coconut flour as ingredients. The Moku Burgers have become so popular that other restaurants, like Cool Cat Cafe and Captain Jack’s Island Grill, started buying them in bulk.
“We do a lot of local spins on things like falafel, using local products,” said Gale. In their falafel, “probably our second-best seller,” they use cassava instead of chickpeas. They do specials every day based on what’s growing, and try to mix it up. They use house-made ulu-whole-wheat bread for sandwiches and naan bread, and host themed nights with vegetarian sushi and Indian food.
Along with “punk-rock, tattooed, vegan chef Nick,” the girls experiment with recipes, many of which are inspired by Gale’s worldwide travels from Dubai to Vietnam. “We try and change like 20 percent of our menu every month,” she said. “We just want to keep it fresh and shake it up.”
Though her partner, Caskey, is a vegetarian, Gale herself likes to spearfish and eats hunted meat. “Most of the people who come in are not vegetarian or vegan, they’re just looking for something healthy,” said Gale.
Seven months in, the owners have done some catering, have started producing their popular taro burgers on a larger scale, and are talking about another location, maybe on the other side of the island. These women are going places – and taking us with them.
We all know we need to do better, but sometimes that’s hard, especially when our everyday life just makes it easy to grab the plastic fork or the throwaway coffee cup. Many restaurant owners, dismayed by the plastics washing up on our beach, have taken the leap to compostable products. This is a commendable start, but compostable products only break down in commercial facilities, which Maui doesn’t have, so the single-use products mostly end up in the landfill anyway.
Moku Roots bravely takes this responsibility one step further, and simply takes away the option for convenience and single-use while providing an attractive and reasonable alternative. Sometimes we need someone to force our hand, and to be the change we all want to see. In this way, Moku Roots is leading the charge for a truly more sustainable Maui.
“It’s really important to vote with your dollar,” Gale said. “When you support us, you are supporting that movement of zero-waste. No one else has really committed to it, yet, like we have. That’s a really cool thing to be a part of.”
335 Keawe St. #211, Lahaina
Open Mon-Sat., 8am-8pm;
Images courtesy Instagram/Moku Roots