Lucky for you—the southeastern flank of Maui provides some of the most epic views in Hawaii, while visiting Haleakala is an absolute must for anyone vacationing on the Valley Isle.
You’re also in luck, in that the ride will take you through Keokea, a lovely rural outpost that’s home to a splendid park, a charming gallery, more of those million-dollar views—and the inimitable Grandma’s Maui Coffee.
“Grandma” (aka Minnie Franco) was sixteen years old when she began hand-picking, drying, and roasting wild coffee beans grown on the slopes of Haleakala. The year was 1918, an era in which water was scarce and the village of Keokea operated as the island’s Chinatown. As the only stop for coffee Upcountry—a pastoral region principally characterized, then and now, by its farms and ranches—Grandma bartered her brews with the ranchers and paniolo on their way to Ulupalakua and Kaupo.
Grandma—a Puerto Rican native and sugarcane worker who moved to Maui with her family in 1899—could have been thought of as a ranch hand herself. While sugar and pineapple dominated the landscape, coffee got its start in Hawaiian soil in 1813, when Don Francisco de Paula Marin (a jack-of-all-trades from Spain and close friend of King Kamehameha I’s) first planted seedlings on Oahu—thereby paving the way for the sweet, rich Hawaiian beans known today the world-over.
But rather than pulling the cherry pulp from the plants grown on Haleakala’s revered slopes, where a number of microclimates and Maui’s volcanic soil render it an agricultural hotbed, Grandma used a hull—a large mortar and pestle that remains on display at the café, right next to the now 100-year-old coffee grinder that was once used to pulverize the beans.
The screen door creaks when you open it. The menu is written in chalk—long before it became a fad in ersatz rustic eateries. Beans are roasted in a century-old, wood-fired roaster—the same roaster that Minnie acquired from the Philadelphia manufacturer, Burpee, in 1885. (“I could put a motor on it, but it’s better by hand,” Minnie’s grandson, Al Franco, and the proprietor of Grandma’s Maui Coffee, told Islands magazine.) Personalized coffee cups sway from hooks above the cash register. A couple of coffee plants bloom outside of their genuinely rustic patio. The building itself is a hold-over from the plantation era, now painted a vivid, jungly green, while its corrugated tin roof records every raindrop that falls in this enclave of Kula. And much like the prevailing concept of a grandmother’s house, Grandma’s Maui Coffee doles out baked goods that taste like love and comfort.
Chief among their baked specialties—which also include blueberry pancakes, pineapple-coconut bars, and cinnamon rolls that sell out fast—is some of the finest banana bread you’ll find on the island.
“Banana bread was born of necessity,” Al told Bon Appétit. “We had too many bananas, so we made bread. I use my grandmother’s recipe and bananas from my yard.” Today, that bread has expanded from its timeworn recipe to include fresh, locally-sourced ingredients, including macadamia nuts (which are paired with chocolate), Kula strawberries, and coconut.
Always one to fiddle with recipes, Al—an avid night diver who is widely known for his tattoos, including one of a shark, an animal he calls his ‘aumakua (spiritual guide)—founded Grandma’s Maui Coffee in 1988 and has been welcoming its droves of visitors and kama’aina ever since, whether that’s couples on their way to the nearby Maui Winery or Kula residents running in for their morning joe.
And what joe it is. Over the last four generations, the Franco ohana has continued to honor Minnie’s original method of picking Haleakala-cultivated Arabica beans by hand, pulping the cherries, drying the beans “naturally in the hot Hawaiian sun,” hulling the beans, and then roasting them on-site at their café. “All of this is done to attain the highest quality possible for our coffee beans,” they say. “Our strain of coffee has acquired a very unique flavor and has become one of Hawaii’s premier gourmet coffees.”
If you happen to be one such visitor, know that you’re in a place that’s considered sacrosanct to Maui’s thriving arts scene. Back in the day, Grandma’s—which was listed among the Food Network’s Emeril Lagasse’s “Best of Hawaii” segment—was the Café de Flore of Maui, a place where a dozen-plus card-carrying members of G.A.G.O.F.F.—Grandma’s Artists Gathering Official Friday Festivity—would gather on Friday mornings to gab about art and life over mahogany-scented brews.
“The story goes that Dick Nelson, who became a legend in the Maui art world, would have breakfast with his students and critique their work,” The Maui Artist’s Way reports. “Word got around through the coconut wireless (before internet), and artists like J.B. Rea, George Allan, Jill Christierson, and art lovers showed up to learn about art. Over time, the critiques developed into animated art talks.” The core group that frequented Grandma’s went on to create the Hui No’eau Visual Arts Center in Makawao—another island institution that has tutored and supported many of the leading artists on the Valley Isle.
Sundays, Al and his aloha-spirited staff greet patrons as live Hawaiian music plays from outdoors and diners “talk story” while digging into plates of Loco Moco with homemade meatloaf and gravy, Eggs Benedict, waffles with fresh fruit, and Pineapple Dream Cake. Named one of the top spots to stop on Maui in Sunset magazine, Grandma’s is a veritable Mom and Pop shop—right up there with Hana’s Hasegawa General Store and Makawao’s T. Komoda Store & Bakery—and a place where, even if only temporarily, you can step back into Maui’s bucolic past.
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