Imagine getting the fruits of your labors into chain stores nationwide with financial help from the chain itself. Maui Taro Burger-maker Hawaii Taro Co. LLC , founded by Robert Mitnick , is the first local company to receive a loan from the Whole Foods Market Local Loan Producer Program. The program loans money at low interest rates to small businesses to help with capital expenditures that will increase the companies' production and get their products into Whole Foods nationwide. Mitnick used the $17,500 loan to buy equipment "to up our production," he said. As a result, his first shipment of frozen taro patties will go out in early January to 50 Whole Foods stores across Southern California , Nevada and Arizona . Whole Foods Market has 340 stores in the United States , Canada and the United Kingdom , and Mitnick's plan, since he founded the business in 1997, "is to have nonstop expansion forever," he said. Maui Taro Burgers are widely available in Hawaii , and he has been doing business with Whole Foods since about 2003, he said. Maui Taro Burger patties come in three flavors -- original, "volcano" and Asian -- all of which are sold frozen, but also are prepared hot and ready to eat at Whole Foods stores on Oahu and Maui , as well as at restaurants and other stores. Maui Taro Burgers are marketed as meatless, wheatless, soyless, vegan, additive-free, gluten-free and GMO-free. But whether you are vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or omnivore, "it's just tasty food," said Claire Sullivan , Whole Foods' Hawaii coordinator for purchasing and public affairs, whose favorite is the volcano patty. Maui Taro Burger patties are made from the entire taro plant, from root to stalk to leaves, and include no binders, just flavoring ingredients such as onion, garlic and carrots in the original, a proprietary blend of hot peppers in the volcano, and fresh ginger and Chinese spices in the Asian burger, Mitnick said. "There's nothing in them that you can't pronounce," Mitnick chuckled. The patties should be kept frozen, not thawed prior to cooking. They can be prepared in a variety of ways including heated in a skillet, cooked on a grill, or, in the case of his wife's spaghetti, dropped into the simmering sauce to break apart, thicken the sauce "and add nice flavor," he said. Cooked patties can be diced and folded into omelets, salads or any number of dishes, he said. For breakfast he'll pop one in the toaster. He uses the patties not just as a meat substitute, but a carb substitute, he said. "I want everybody to eat it." Vegan and vegetarian burger products have been available for decades, but "it's really exciting to have a veggie burger that is not made primarily from corn and soy byproducts ... with no severely processed or hydrolyzed, extremely salty processed foods," said Sullivan. Visitors to Hawaii all get their obligatory introduction to poi, which most do not like and therefore joke about, but the taro burger is completely different, Mitnick and Sullivan say. "I've been thinking about the expats," Sullivan said. "How lovely to be able to have a Hawaii -grown-and-made taro product for those moments that they're homesick for something that's delicious that reminds them of their home and their cuisine, that's going to be exciting," she said. An aspect of supporting the taro burger project that Sullivan called "really compelling" is not only supporting the farmers who are growing food in Hawaii , but also "supporting the next step" for value-added producers who are buying food grown by farmers here and adding shelf life and "legs," getting what farmers grow into more kitchens. While "many people are intimidated by taro" because they don't know how to prepare it, or have heard tales of itchy throats, "it's such a wonderful starch and a significant part of Hawaii's cultural heritage," Sullivan said. Having it in patty form, "it ends up being enjoyed by that many more people," she said. The frozen patties' shelf life extends beyond two years, Mitnick said. For mainlanders who don't live near a Whole Foods selling Maui Taro Burgers, Hawaii Taro Co. offers shipping of wholesale packages of 48 patties for $130 , which includes the frozen product, packing and two-day FedEx shipping. WHERE TO BUY IT ON OAHU >> Whole Foods Market >> Celestial Natural Foods , Haleiwa >>? Don Quijote >> Down to Earth >> Foodland >> Good Health Food Store , Aiea >> Kale's Natural Foods , Hawaii Kai >> Ruffage Natural Foods , Waikiki >> Sack N Save >> Times Commissaries >> Hickam >> Marine Corps Base Hawaii >> Pearl Harbor >> Schofield Barracks Hawaii Taro Co. LLC www.hawaiitaro.com 808-214-6362 ------ "Buy Local" runs on Aloha Fridays. Reach Erika Engle at 529-4303, email@example.com , or on Twitter as @erikaengle. Credit: Erika Engle
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