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Macadamias Get Hawaii Out of Its Shell

April 25, 1988|TOM FURLONG | Times Staff Writer

HONOLULU — In this city's modern downtown are three macadamia nut trees growing right outside the front door of the quaint two-story building of a 162-year-old company known as C. Brewer & Co.

Though these trees haven't produced any nuts, for unexplained reasons, they do symbolize one of C. Brewer's principal reasons for being: It's the world's leading producer of the macadamia nut products with which the island tourist state of Hawaii is so closely identified.

"Not too many things in the world is Hawaii No. 1 in," company chief executive John W. A. (Doc) Buyers said, "but macadamia nuts is one of them."

Excluding the illegal production of marijuana, macadamia nuts are one of Hawaii's most important crops, along with sugar and pineapple. "It's an export," Hawaii Gov. John Waihee said in a interview, "and Hawaii needs exports."

The industry in Hawaii is dominated by C. Brewer, also one of the state's largest landowners, followed by MacFarms of Hawaii, an Australian-owned company. C. Brewer markets its products through the Mauna Loa brand name, while MacFarms uses its own name and the Blue Diamond label.

As the popularity of macadamia has grown in recent years, their uses have proliferated beyond just the plain snack nut.

Mrs. Fields puts them in cookies and Haagen-Dazs puts them in ice cream. They substitute for peanuts in brittle. They are also honey-roasted and chocolate-coated as well as eaten in what is known as their natural, or pristine, condition.

One drawback is they're on the fattening side, numbering up to 20 calories per nut. They're also expensive, typically costing at least $2 for a small, 3 1/2-ounce jar.

"It's not going to be a diet food or an everyday staple," said Rex Lake, a marketing manager for Blue Diamond Growers, the growers' cooperative in Sacramento that markets macadamia nuts for MacFarms.

The nuts are expensive for a reason. The trees take 15 years to reach full maturity, and it's time-consuming and expensive to crack the nuts, which have both an outer covering and an inner shell.

The trees are also finicky. They only grow in tropical climates that have cool evenings and abundant moisture. In Hawaii, they grow mainly on Maui and on the island of Hawaii.

But for those who can afford them, macadamia nuts are quite tasty, which accounts for their growth in sales in the United States and in Asia. Japanese tourists seem particularly smitten, especially by the chocolate-covered variety that they often cart home as presents.

C. Brewer got into the business only 14 years ago when it acquired the operation--which did $4 million a year in sales--from Castle & Cooke, another large Hawaiian land company. Its macadamia operations now generate $70 million annually in revenue from production fields that cover 9,000 acres on the islands of Maui and Hawaii, C. Brewer officials say.

Though its manufacturing plant near Hilo is well-hidden from the road, it has become a favorite stop on the tour-bus circuit. As many as 700,000 people a year visit the facility, where the nuts are grown, shelled, cooked and packaged.

It has only been in this decade that C. Brewer has aggressively marketed the macadamia nuts outside Hawaii, company officials say. One boost to sales and name recognition came when the firm hired John Hillerman--the likeably snobbish character known as Higgins in the popular Hawaii-based "Magnum, P.I." television series--as their chief spokesman.

Hawaii presently accounts for about three-quarters of the world's supply, but other regions are challenging this supremacy. Worldwide output, now 16 million to 17 million pounds a year, may jump to 40 million or 50 million pounds by the year 2000 as regions in Africa, Central America and Australia step up production, industry executives believe.

"If we don't do something to expand sales, we're going to be fighting with each other over static markets," Lake said. Industry executives believe Europe and Japan are the most logical areas for expanded sales.

The macadamia nut trees weren't brought to the Hawaiian islands until the 1880s, and then they were brought here from Australia for decorative purposes and to stem soil erosion. White settlers in Australia used to call them Queensland nuts, but they eventually got their present name after a botanist who had worked with the trees named them after his friend, Dr. John Macadam.

Meanwhile, it wasn't until the 1920s that a entrepreneur from the East Coast named Ernest Van Tassell, who had come to Hawaii due to ill health, tried to grow them commercially.

But he had serious cost problems because the nuts proved so hard to crack. Crushing them with a board didn't work because it broke the nut up too much. He finally managed to get his product on store shelves, but it took 13 years to do it.

The industry is still so new that no one really knows how long the trees will produce. Some trees are already more than 100 years old, according to Albert F. Kam Jr., the chief financial officer for C. Brewer's Mauna Loa Macadamia Nut Corp. subsidiary.

"We don't know what their life span is because we're still creating the industry," Kam said.

They're still creating the markets as well. For all the attempts to expand sales on the mainland United States and Far East, macadamia nuts remain very much associated with Hawaii and Hawaiian vacations.

"They're still bought mainly by people who have vacationed in Hawaii," Lake said. "Our biggest markets are on the West Coast, and then New York. They're bought by people who want to relive their vacations a bit."

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