“Our company is based in a big fishing town in Kona so naturally we have access to a lot of seafood,” says Sheldon Cho, the face of Kaimana Jerky.
In the Hawaiian language, kaimana translates to “the power of the sea.”
Sheldon and his ‘ohana who live just a few miles from amazing fishing grounds on Hawai‘i Island, reel in this power to create its delicious varieties of locally sourced ahi jerky.
“We’ve always lived here and run our company out of Kona. When I was a little kid, my parents owned a plate lunch business, and their friends would trade fish for plate lunches,” says Sheldon. From there, his family began drying and selling fish jerky as a to-go snack at the restaurant.
This item soon became more lucrative than running the restaurant itself, so the Cho ‘ohana pivoted its business to what is Kaimana Jerky today. Sheldon learned early on from his father how to pivot fast, make quick decisions and create new products.
During its early days, Kaimana Jerky only produced marlin jerky; however, after changes in the fishing industry and market evaluation, the company made the switch to ahi.
“It's [ahi] more well-known and popular worldwide, plus it’s healthier than marlin because it has Omega-6 and high-quality proteins. Also, on the local level, fishermen catch more ahi than marlin,” he says.
Nowadays, Kaimana Jerky is still mostly run by Sheldon’s father, while he handles marketing and sales, and his aunty and cousin oversee production of the tuna jerkies.
All Kaimana Jerky products are made with a labor of aloha. The jerky is thinly sliced, marinated (an eight-hour soak in a homemade marinade), then slow-dried for eight hours. The family also skips on the preservatives, simply using wild-caught fish, soy sauce, sugar and spices.
“Just to keep it nice and clean, we don’t need to use preservatives for shelf-life. Soy sauce and brown sugar combined with jerky, in general, is a natural preservative. Ancient Hawaiians would do it this way without refrigeration,” says Sheldon.Teriyaki has long been the brand’s most popular flavor here in the islands with its much-desired sweet and salty taste. It continues to be Kaimana Jerky’s best-seller, followed by Original–which uses hickory smoke to add a kick of flavor–and Peppered.
“The majority of people we talked to wanted flavors that are sweet and hot, and also had a wood-smoked smell to it,” explains Sheldon who notes that they take heed to customer feedback when formulating their unique recipes and varieties.
“In the past, we’ve been able to support a lot of local fishermen by buying from them directly, but [federal] laws have changed in the last five years. We’re still able to support them through large fish processors now, where locals sell it to,” says Sheldon of its sustainable sourcing practices.
In addition to locally and sustainably sourcing its ahi, Kaimana Jerky supports the local economy by employing people within its small community.“We’re still buying fish and our customers are buying them online,” said Sheldon when asked about how the company works with the fishing industry to create a better future for Hawai‘i.