Ones to Watch | By Lynne Miller
Maui Wowi Hawaiian Coffees & Smoothies are in strip malls, shopping mall foodcourts, airports, auditoriums, supermarkets, health clubs, and sports arenas, among other venues.
Considering all the different formats the company offers, it’s no wonder Michael Haith has difficulty describing the typical Maui Wowi.
After all, in some neighborhoods people find Maui Wowi carts. Elsewhere, customers can take a break from shopping and enjoy a strawberry banana smoothie in a 2,000-square-foot café at the mall.
“Flexible is our watchword,” says Haith, the man responsible for transforming the company from a four-store, mom-and-pop cart concept to a sprawling nationwide chain. “It’s hard to pigeonhole us. We do traditional and nontraditional real estate. We fit in wherever people have a desire to buy Hawaiian coffees and smoothies.”
In fact, Maui Wowi has established a brand and reputation in places where many competitors won’t go. Of the more than 500 franchises, only about 100 would be considered traditional stores, operating in a 600-square-foot or larger space in a shopping mall or strip shopping center.
“We want people who want flexibility to build as large or small a business as they want,” says Haith, who purchased the company in 1998 from Jeff and Jill Summerhays of Salt Lake City, Utah, with the intention of making it a franchise operation. “We see huge opportunity in more nontraditional spaces. People are looking for high-quality, healthy items even if they’re going to a hockey game or arts festival.”
Mention Hawaii and most people will smile. Haith, who comes from the corporate catering world, liked the brand’s association with a vacation paradise. So what if the company originated in Salt Lake City and is now based in a Denver suburb?
“Everybody loves Hawaii,” says Haith, who travels to the island state at least twice a year to visit suppliers and tour coffee farms. “You say Hawaiian fruit drink and people pretty much get it. That’s why I loved it. I didn’t have to do an education campaign.
“What I liked about the concept was it was fast, quick, and healthy. That’s a tough combination to find anywhere.”
While Maui Wowi doesn’t officially position itself as a healthy dining option, Haith notes the company’s smoothies are lower in calories than some competitors’ products. Maui Wowi smoothies are made from a proprietary blend of nonfat yogurt, tropical fruit juices, and purées. An 18-ounce smoothie runs 200 to 300 calories. Other chains sell smoothies that hit 500-plus calories. “Just because it’s a smoothie doesn’t make it healthy,” he says.
Nine base flavors can be blended into hundreds of smoothies. More often than not, though, customers order a strawberry-banana drink. The combo makes up about 50 percent of the drinks sold by franchisees. Orange mango and piña colada are also popular.
All drinks are made fresh to order. Employees, wearing brightly colored Hawaiian shirts, peel the bananas and blend the smoothies in front of customers. Recently, Maui Wowi rolled out a line of botanically based vegetarian supplements to franchisees. The vitamins do not alter the taste of the drinks, Haith says.
“It’s an added bonus,” he said. “The franchisees are really excited.”
Maui Wowi also offers chilled coffee beverages. Some are blended with milk and taste like ice cream. The stores also carry Hawaiian caramel corn and macadamia nuts. The average check ranges from $4 to $6.
“We offer super-high quality products, and we can marry both Hawaiian coffees and smoothies under the Hawaiian brand,” Haith says. “Others position themselves as healthy [but] can’t do coffee. They offer just smoothies.”
Franchise fees vary depending on the type and number of stores. Fees range from $27,500 for one fixed location to $59,500 for 10 locations that can include different formats including catering units. Haith declined to release sales figures.
In addition to spreading across the country, Maui Wowi recently entered into an agreement with a franchisee in Singapore. “Our next goal is international,” Haith says. “We want to bring Hawaii to the world.”