In a way, Chris Bailey’s ’04 life has come full circle. After spending a decade in Oregon’s food entrepreneurship scene, he’s now back home and in charge of Leeward Community College’s new Wahiawā Value-Added Product Development Center – a role that enables him to build the support system he wished he had as a young food entrepreneur.
He finds it especially meaningful that he gets to contribute to the growing statewide momentum to elevate Hawai‘i-made products and diversify the state’s economy. The $21.6 million, 33,000-square foot Wahiawā center will provide local entrepreneurs with production and floor space, which was previously hard to come by. The facility has an area to wash produce, walk-in cooler storage, two wet kitchens, two dry kitchens, and a hiperbaric high-pressure processing machine. There will also be on-site product development staff who can consult with entrepreneurs.
“It’s so incredible now in 2023, the resources, organizations and people supporting these initiatives, and the larger public support that’s pushing for Hawai‘i-made companies is incredible,” he says. “I’m glad we’re at this point with the Wahiawā project, to help provide that kind of support and infrastructure for more local companies. To be able to help launchpad them, it’s great to see. I’m so thrilled to see it in my lifetime.”
The son of an immigrant entrepreneur from southern Thailand, Bailey’s passion for food and small business stems from childhood afternoons in his mother and aunt’s Waipahu restaurant where they served Thai and local food. He saw how his mother’s dedication gave him and his brother opportunities she didn’t have, like attending Punahou, where the connections he made helped frame food entrepreneurship as a tangible career path.
Bailey studied English at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon before returning home to become an editor for Hawai‘i Magazine. Bailey says talking story with local entrepreneurs encouraged him to finally take the leap into food entrepreneurship.
He originally wanted to start his businesses in Hawai‘i but struggled to find resources and support. Portland, on the other hand, was gaining national recognition for its food scene, so he took a job as a research chef at Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center while trying to launch two product businesses, Pozole to the People and Bloom Caramel, on the side.
He later became a business developer at Portland Mercado, a Latinx market hall and business incubator. Over the next five years, he advised over 50 immigrant and BIPOC-led businesses as they took their consumer products to market. He helped them overcome challenges around storytelling, accessing capital, sales opportunities, manufacturing and scaling their businesses. His work there earned him the Willamette Week Skidmore Prize in 2018 and Lewis and Clark College’s Outstanding Young Alumnus Award in 2021.
In 2020, he and a business partner launched Community Co-Pack, a manufacturing start-up that helps women- and BIPOC-led food and beverage makers scale. They just completed a fundraising round and plan to grow their production space to help more companies.
Bailey’s goal is to help community members engage with the Wahiawā project. “Who doesn’t kind of get a kick out of thinking about the possibility of being able to come home to Hawai‘i first, but to be able to come home and help give back or contribute to a bigger mission?” The center, in partnership with LCC and the Hawai‘i Ag and Culinary Alliance, just wrapped up its first cohort of its From Cottage Industry to Commercial Enterprise program, and he’s looking into creating professional development opportunities for the nearby high schools.
By Noelle Fujii-Oride
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