Business

Surf Break Café Riding the Wave of Mobile Technology

May 2, 2012, 12:39 PM HST
* Updated May 2, 4:44 PM
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Malissa Thompson is betting on hand-pressed Italian coffee, free Wi-Fi and a relaxed atmosphere to filter working professionals away from the competition.

The owner of Surf Break Café since 2008, Thompson self-financed the move to a larger location in order to provide a 700 square foot indoor seating area and sidewalk tables to her busy customers. With mobile technology on the rise, she saw an increased need for indoor space tailored to an internet-heavy lifestyle.

“Many businesspeople don’t need a permanent office now but want a place to get work done, and we’ve got people coming in here to hold board meetings,” explains Thompson, who offers free high-speed wireless internet service to her customers.

surf break cafe interior

The indoor seating area is 700 square feet and tailored for the high-tech worker crowd. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

Thompson, a digital media entrepreneur who relocated from Los Angeles to the Big Island in 2003, had a difficult time finding the new location for her café.  Describing the challenge, she recalls “I was shocked to discover a lack of commercial space in downtown Hilo. The majority of the commercial real estate here is owned by just a few people.”

A new site for the business was eventually secured across from the historic Palace Theater on Haili Street. Thompson signed a five year lease for the 1100 square foot space, and began what she thought would be a two week renovation. Due to unforeseen permitting challenges, it would be seven months before the café could open its doors, finally doing so in February of 2012. The delays proved costly, but Thompson notes, “We’ve been very busy, and we’re getting back on our feet.”

Surf break cafe exterior

Thompson secured a site for the cafe opposite the Palace Theater. Photo by Nate Gaddis.

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Inside the café, local artwork and an ocean-blue floor color convey an island theme. But when it comes to selecting beans for the café’s beverages, Thompson chooses to steer clear of Hawaiian-grown coffee.

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She explains that locally produced varieties are too mild for the single and double-pressed espressos that are the focal point of the establishment. “We want to serve coffee you can really sink your teeth into,” says Thompson, who currently purchases beans from Lavazza, a high-end Italian coffee importer that helped pioneer the blending process in the early 1900s.

Due to customer requests, Thompson soon plans on keeping the café’s doors open past their current 3 p.m. closing time. In addition to providing existing clients an evening gathering place, she hopes to lure moviegoers from the adjacent Palace Theater.

Although there are several locally-owned coffee establishments nearby, Thompson sees Starbucks as her main competitor. To set her operation apart, Thompson ensures all of the café’s food items are made-to-order, stating, “we don’t do frozen breakfast sandwiches”. She is also quick to point out the lack of automated espresso makers at the café, noting “We hand press everything the old-fashioned way, no pushing a button and then watching it come out of a machine.”

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One big challenge facing the Surf Break Café is a shortage of convenient parking. Thompson acknowledges that at times nearby stalls are hard to find, and observes an increase in the overall level of activity in the downtown area. The café owner is optimistic about the increased bustle, attributing part of it to tourism, and noting “Downtown Hilo is really coming alive again.”

The Surf Break Café is located at 17 Haili Street, Hilo

Espresso shots start at $1.75, while burritos and sandwiches start at $6.95

Current hours of operation are Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sundays 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. 808-934-8844

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