Photo: Mark Arbeit
Disillusioned by corporate downsizing, Karen Campbell brewed up a bubbly new life—in Hawaii.
Wailua is one of those old Hawaii plantation towns that guidebooks describe as "sleepy." But when Karen Campbell and her then fiancé, Jason, visited in 2001, the town's century-old sugar mill inspired one sweet and life-altering idea.
Jason, a sculptor, suggested they give up their hectic lives in Laguna Beach, California, move to Hawaii, and start a soda company—one with old-fashioned glass bottles, the kind he loved as a kid. Karen initially called him crazy, but she had to admit that her job as a marketing manager for a global engineering firm was losing its fizz. "The company was laying off people who had been there 20, 30 years," she says. "I hated that we were all so expendable."
In 2003, just two years after their Hawaiian getaway, the couple (now married) returned to Waialua with $100,000 of their savings. Renting the industrial kitchen in the town's sugar mill, they launched Waialua Soda Works, purveyors of artisanal pop infused with local Maui sugar and vanilla. Workdays stretched until 2 A.M., with glass bottles shattering as they mastered the machinery. But island stores soon took an interest, and the Campbells graduated from five-gallon to 200-gallon tanks and expanded their flavor offerings (mango, lilikoi). Their soda "is meant to be sipped, not guzzled," says Karen. "It really transports you to Hawaii for a moment."
After a few years, Costco came calling: "It was awesome," says Karen. "Except I had to turn them down." Without capital for equipment and raw materials, the couple couldn't supply a large retailer. Seeking investors, Karen made presentations all over America before the leader of an Oahu investing group happened to taste the soda; he phoned the Campbells the same day. "That was the first night I slept well in a long time," says Karen.
Today the soda can be found in more than 1,000 U.S. stores (including Whole Foods). Karen might be the hardest-working woman in Waialua, but "it's not a blur like it used to be," she says. "I enjoy every day. I have every day." By that she means she has the flexibility to spend time with Audrey, 3, and Oscar, 4. "They make it worthwhile."
And doing it all in Hawaii? She smiles. "That helps." —Kathryn Drury Wagner
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