News Column

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser Buy Local column

July 18, 2014

By Erika Engle, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

July 18--Joanna Carolan is one of those people who successfully transitioned from artisan and handcrafter to businesswoman.

She did it 23 years ago and has built her business up through a hurricane, overseas competition, downturns in the economy and visitor count challenges.

"I'm primarily a watercolor artist, and have been lucky to work in different media," Carolan said.

Watercolor techniques translate to the ceramic tiles she made that became a huge hit outside the door of many a Hawaii home, and she used her artistic know-how to design labels for her companies, Banana Patch Studio and Aloha Spice Co.

Some of her watercolor paintings of Hawaiian gods and goddesses also adorn the packaging of body lotions sold for $17.95 through Aloha Spice Co.

She has been commissioned by hotels for large-scale paintings and other artistic work.

The ceramic tiles that put her on the map greet people at the door and say "Mahalo for removing your shoes" or similar iterations thereof.

Carolan first came to the islands to visit her grandparents in 1968, and then moved here from San Francisco to live with them during her high school days. "I was a very rebellious teenager," she said, calling her mother "wise" for moving her here.

During her '70s-era days at Kapaa High School, from which she graduated, she experienced the Hawaiian Renaissance. Its impact on her is most visibly reflected in her art and her food product lines.

She moved back to the isles in 1990, started her business in 1991, and then Hurricane Iniki hit on Sept. 11, 1992. With art galleries closing left and right, she feared her fledgling business would fail, "but then people began rebuilding their houses," she said.

As a housewarming gift, she presented homeowners with a "Mahalo for removing your shoes" tile, and one by one the requests came for more such tiles.

"I couldn't keep up with production," she said. "I hired one person, then a second," and so on.

As her tiles grew in popularity, the whole imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery thing was reflected through local sales of cheaper tiles manufactured in China, cutting into Banana Patch Studio's bottom line.

Carolan diversified.

Her late father had owned a restaurant, and she thought working with food would be an homage to him and at the same time "support more sustainability here," she said. She worked with a chef to create Aloha Spice Co. products, which now include organic rubs, gourmet seasoning blends, salts and sugars.

One of the things Carolan said she is most proud of is the smoked salts, which derive their smoky flavor from the burning of strawberry guava wood.

Strawberry guava is "very invasive" and, as a friend was working on an eradication effort, she thought, "fruit wood is good for cooking."

Nine of the company's Hawaiian salts -- either plain white or red 'Alaea combined with such flavorings as bamboo leaf extract, activated charcoal, garlic or others -- are sold in grinder-topped containers for $10.95 online, while others are sold in resealable bags or shakers for $3.95 to $7.95 online.

For the salt-averse, there is Tutu's Organic No Salt Seasoning. "It's great on salads," Carolan said. "My favorite is just putting it on an avocado."

Since Kauai's sugar industry is no more, "we use Maui sugar and locally grown vanilla, hibiscus and lilikoi" to flavor the Aloha Spice line of sugars, she said.

Banana Patch Studio's ceramics are hand-painted and are fired in Carolan's Hanapepe facility where kilns are powered by photovoltaic panels.

The 4-by-4-inch tiles featuring the "remove your shoes" message or Hawaiian flora, fauna and other designs sell for $17; the 6-by-6-inch tiles, also in various themes, are $28 online.

Carolan also offers ceramic house numbers, ready-made or made to order. On a much larger scale, her custom work also has included tile backsplashes for kitchens, murals and bathroom accents.

Between the two companies, Carolan employs 31 people. "I couldn't do either of these businesses without a great team."

"Buy Local" runs on Aloha Fridays. Reach Erika Engle at 529-4303,, or on Twitter as @erikaengle.


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Source: Honolulu Star-Advertiser (HI)

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