In the classic movie Alice in Wonderland, Alice finds a bottle labeled “Drink Me.” She does, and grows massively. The local coffee shop Sip Me, whose name is inspired by the iconic film, is doing the same. Three years ago, Laura Wentworth, the owner and founder, opened the doors of her flagship location in Makawao at the old Kitada’s space. Then, Sip Me moved on down to Pa‘ia in two shared-space locations: one at Consuelo’s on Baldwin and the other with the boutique Sea La Vie on Hana Highway. In May, doors opened at her Kahului space, and a Wailea location is in the works, to be opened in January of next year.
“I’m kind of insane. There has to be a level of insanity involved in this for sure,” joked Wentworth when I sat down with her at her new space in Kahului, across from First Hawaiian Bank by the harbor. Sip Me’s newest location is airy and spacious. The space was originally Pioneer Federal, the first bank on Maui, with the original vault still in the kitchen.
The interior is well designed and comfortable, with modern and rustic touches. Wood and cement flooring, copper and silver touches, a turquoise couch and a starburst light fixture with succulents in mismatched mugs made for a cute coffee experience. The large floor plan meant that although the place was certainly not empty on the Friday morning I went in, it did not feel crowded. Wood bench seats along the wall had an outlet for every seat, and the house coffee was strong, which was easy to see through the glass mug, and delicious, with woody elements.
“I’ve wanted a coffee shop since I was 15,” said Wentworth. Despite having no prior experience working in a coffee shop, Wentworth took the plunge a few years back after working on her business plan for years. “I’d never worked a day in service since opening Makawao. I went into it 100 percent blind. But it ended up working, I think, because I was approaching it from a client standpoint as opposed to a business. It had a lot of challenges along the way, and I had a lot of great help. It shouldn’t have worked, by all means.”
But it did work, due to a few key elements, among them a community approach, quality products, outsourcing and Wentworth’s work ethic. “I have been massively supported by the community,” said Wentworth. “The reason Sip Me is where it is today – for the reason for a business to catch – it’s all about the community. More than anything, it really is about the relationships that we built. Not to say that we don’t have great coffee, because I work really hard on having the highest quality of everything we can possibly offer.”
The locations all have consistency in quality. It’s the “same exact menu – that being said, the menu is changing,” said Wentworth. In addition to sweet pastries from Chef Lee Anderson and savory pastries from Consuelo, Chef Bev Gannon is coming on board. Gannon’s baker Vossy will soon come on board to make gluten-free products for the shop. Wentworth’s focus is on quality of product and experience. This is apparent from the obvious, like the coffee, down to the small touches. For example, the coffee bar offers maple syrup and does not offer single-use stir sticks. “I think consumers are getting more savvy. We run a really transparent business model,” said Wentworth.
One of Wentworth’s secrets to success is trust in her vision, including her products and her people. She knows her strengths and outsources the rest, building relationships with her vendors, employees and customers. Sip Me relies on daily deliveries from outside vendors. “We have executive chefs that bake for us every day. Chef Lee Anderson, who owns Sugar Beach – she doesn’t whole-sell to anyone. And every day she bakes for us and does all of our French pastries.”
Wentworth worked with Maui Oma’s David Gridley on her coffee blends. “He is by far the best roaster on Maui – he is so passionate about what he does,” she explains. “It took me three and a half months and 16 tries to blend [the house coffee].” Wentworth plans on expanding her relationships and bringing in other vendors to sell quality products, such as organic bouquets from Upcountry’s Petaloom Floral Co.
The other key ingredient in her growth is simple hard work. The coffee shops are open from 5:30am-7:30pm, and every morning Laura is there with her team to open the doors. “I can’t wait ‘til I can sleep for a day or maybe a week!” Laura laughs. “Every launch that we do, I will always be at the store every day for a month. I think it’s imperative for my team to see that you will scrub the floors, and that you are not afraid to do what you’re asking them to do, and that they know all of the duties that they do. In business, there’s really nothing worse than working for a boss that you don’t respect, can’t trust, or know more than.” She structures her shops with lots of internal structure to build independence and trust – with a general manager, staff managers and stock managers in each shop.
“I’m learning to really trust my instincts. I put a board of advisors together because I am somewhat unexperienced in many ways. I’m abundantly and acutely aware of how many people’s livelihoods are depending on me. From our 22 suppliers to our 37 employees, 13 of which are just employed with me. That’s a responsibility I do not take lightly. I need to make sure I have people on my team that are better than I am in the areas I am lacking.”
“There’s a level of education and care,” said Wentworth. “It’s exhausting, it’s hard, but I’ve never had a day where I went to bed and said, I didn’t give it my best today.” Laura sits with every employee, who all undergo an intensive training period. “There’s so much behind the scenes. It carries over.”
Eventually, the Kahului space will be an event space with extended hours. There will be an Alice in Wonderland themed event and an after-hours spot for ArT=Mixx. “We’re going to call it Sip Me After Dark, with rich pastries and BYOB and drink specials,” said Wentworth. Her remarkable energy and vision are contagious, and I can see her future plans being as successful as everything Wentworth has done. She might just have to hold out a bit on that plan for sleep.
Photos: Sean M. Hower