Shaka Bowl, an acai and poke shop in New Jersey, was conceived by two broke millennials
A trip to Hawaii on a shoestring budget inspired this delicious million-dollar business.
When sisters Kiersten Gormeley, 26, and Krista Gormeley, 24, took a trip to the Big Island during college in 2014, they had just $90 between the two of them to live on for a month in the small town of Hilo.
“We had no idea what we were in for,” Krista, who studied marketing and communication, tells Moneyish. “We had no money, no food and we had to just figure it out. We went hitchhiking to the grocery store … we were literally living off the land.” But they were determined to make it work.
The trip was an escape for Krista, who had just ended a long term relationship. Her sister, a chef and caterer at the time, had convinced her to go on a seven-month excursion for a change of scenery from their native New Jersey.
The duo quickly became acclimated with the healthy lifestyle and delicious Hawaiian food, like poke (a raw fish salad) and acai (purple berries from palm trees), and they started making smoothies with the fruit they’d get from local markets. And Kiersten started developing fun, healthy recipes: 9-grain banana bread with peanut butter Nutella and chocolate chips; and ahi-tuna poke bowls with carrots, edamame and sweet white onion.
“We let go of our materialistic things and lived this outdoor lifestyle that’s easy to sustain. We’d take bananas off trees and freeze them for smoothies,” says Krista, who’d blend the fruit with spinach, almond milk and peanut butter for her morning meal. “We started to learn how to live simply. It got us thinking, ‘How can we bring this back home?'”
That same smoothie is now the $8 star of their Shaka Bowl restaurant menu in Hoboken, N.J. The sisters returned home in 2014 ready to open up a cafe serving the food that had nourished them on the Big Island, and took out a $100,000 loan with help from their business-minded brother. But a year before their grand opening in 2015, Kiersten was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, which resulted in having her thyroid removed.
“I was in and out of countless doctors’ (offices) and ended up getting surgery,” Kiersten says. And her recovery was exhausting. “I was getting acclimated with the new medicine,” she added. “Some days, I couldn’t get up.”
But she didn’t let cancer keep her from pursuing her lifelong dream of opening a cafe, and her siblings had her back. Krista handled the marketing and hiring, and her brother landed the right location. A year later, the family opened Shaka Bowl for business in 2016.
The overwhelming response from the community was worth their patience and effort. “We had to close our doors three hours into the opening, because there was an overwhelming crowd,” Krista recalls. “We were taking orders on Post-it notes in the beginning.”
The Gormeleys say they made more than $1 million in sales after just one year running Shaka Bowl, and they were already able to pay back the massive loan they took out. They’re opening a second location without any investors in Hoboken on Washington Street within the next month.
That frantic, first-day rush at the original restaurant has prepared them for their next eatery. “We learned never to open business hastily,” says Kiersten. “We’re taking our time with our second one. You don’t learn unless you make mistakes; this time, we’re making sure we have a full inventory, and doing a soft opening the first week for friends and family.”
Competition has been stiff since they opened their first restaurant, especially with similar chains like Playa Bowl, an acai and poke bowl concept, nearby. But the rivalry has stoked Kiersten’s culinary creativity, motivating her to dream up new menu items for the restaurants, like vegan jackfruit pulled pork tacos, and avocado egg rolls, both made to be washed down with nitrogen green tea and kombucha on tap.
“We’re not really bothered by anyone because we believe in our product so much,” says Kiersten of neighboring competition. “We don’t pay them mind.”
But what’s priceless is that Kiersten has been cancer-free for three years, and has been feeling well enough to work weekends and six-day weeks (up to 70 hours per week) with her sister since the eatery opened. Working with family has major benefits, says Kiersten.
“My sister and I live together, and we work together, and we’re best friends. It’s pretty awesome, because you know someone so well. We just click,” she says. “You don’t have to explain yourself.” Plus, her brother and sister are her best taste testers, since she knows they’ll give her honest feedback that she might not get from a regular coworker.
And while they occasionally fight, as all siblings do, she says there’s “no bad blood.”
“When we’re having bad days, or when we feel overworked, we remind ourselves of our goals and to keep moving forward,” says Kiersten. They want to expand their business outside of New Jersey, but still maintain the quality and authenticity of the original location.
“I like simplicity,” adds Kiersten. “I’d rather have a couple of restaurants that are really great, than a bunch that are not-so-great.”
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