Born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii, Krystie Campbell initially protested when her husband Robert Kealoha suggested moving to Colorado.
Why would they move from the land of beaches and sun to the land of the Rocky Mountains? She soon discovered that many islanders had already made the move and that through food and other cultural touchstones had formed a surprisingly vibrant community in the Centennial State. She also found that the region, despite its snow, also has plenty of sunshine.
Her perspective first began to change after their son started attending the University of Colorado Denver. While visiting him, Campbell and her husband decided to enter their cooking at the Taste of Colorado. After two straight years of great responses, they determined they could make a go of it in Denver.
They moved in 2019 and now own Kealoha’s BBQ on Denver’s 16th Street Mall. It hasn’t been easy – as with other businesses across the country, the pair’s kiosk was forced to weather the COVID-19 pandemic before finally reopening last summer.
They also struggled to meet other Hawaiians at first. But the community eventually found them through their food, which includes cultural staples like loco moco and spam musubi.
Their customer base extends beyond islanders, which Campbell considers the perfect opportunity for “sharing aloha with people.” For Hawaiians, “aloha” translates to more than “hello” and “goodbye” – it embodies affection, respect, love and more.
Now, the idea of islanders in the Rocky Mountains isn’t so strange to Campbell. The Big Island is home to Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and sacred mountain that sees snowfall. Nature flourishes in both Hawaii and Colorado, with “beautiful landscapes” to admire across the states, Campbell added.
In the future, she and her husband hope to expand from their kiosk to a brick-and-mortar restaurant. “We love Colorado now,” she said. “I don’t want to go home anymore.”
Hawaiian influences can be found in many places on the Front Range.
Shoppers can find Hawaiian products at Pacific Mercantile Company. Curious souls can watch dancers perform the Hawaiian tradition of hula with their hālaus, or schools, as with Aurora’s Hālau Kalama, the nonprofit arm of Polynesian Party Planners and Kalama Polynesian Dancers.
But, the most accessible avenue to Hawaiian culture in Colorado is through food. The Front Range’s Hawaiian restaurants provide islanders with familiar tastes when they’re thousands of miles from their ʻāina, or the land.
For Esmond Ah Leong of the Pi’ilani Hawaiian Civic Club, his go-to spots include Hangry Ohana in Parker at 10471 S. Parker Rd and Iwayama Sushi at 5500 S. Simms in Littleton.
Several former Hawaii residents founded the civic club in 1978, although membership has dwindled “drastically” in recent years because of relocations out of state or back to the islands, he said. “When COVID hit, that took a big toll on Pi’ilani.”
Hawaiians tend to migrate to Colorado for either military service or college, often finding new homes in Boulder and Colorado Springs, he added. The University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction especially recruit prospective Hawaiian students as part of the Western Undergraduate Exchange, offering reduced tuition rates.
The Facebook group, “Hawaiians Living in Colorado,” claims about 2,300 members. Out of more than 5.8 million Colorado residents, 0.2% identify as Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander alone, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. However, that doesn’t provide an accurate count of Hawaiians resettling in the Rocky Mountain West.
The islands welcomed people of different ethnic backgrounds for centuries, with Pew Research Center calling Hawaii “home to the nation’s largest share of multiracial Americans” in 2015. A quarter of the Rainbow State’s population identifies as two or more races, while almost 37% are Asian alone and 10.5% are Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander alone.
A term is used to encapsulate this diversity: “hapa,” which indicates mixed ethnic heritage, typically with Hawaiian or Pacific Islander ancestry. Many wear the label proudly, although debate has occurred over it being construed as derogatory.
Andrew Cowell, director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies at University of Colorado Boulder, predicts the trend of Hawaiians moving to the mainland, or continental U.S., will continue in the coming years.
With the islands’ steep costs of living and property, “Hawaii is rapidly ejecting Hawaiians,” he said in a phone interview. While the highest concentrations of islanders on the mainland reside in California, Oregon and Washington State, “it’s not just the West Coast anymore.”
The most significant challenge facing displaced islanders is disconnection from the land and culture. A salve? Hawaiian restaurants.
“Around the world, food is one of the most salient symbols of identity – not just for Hawaiians, but for many, many cultures,” Cowell said. “It’s an easy thing to transfer to other places.”
Louie Colburn, owner of Ohana Island Kitchen at 2563 15th St. in Denver, is familiar with the feeling of missing Hawaii from his time spent in the military. With photos of his childhood on Oahu hanging on the restaurant walls, Colburn intentionally designed his LoHi eatery to offer “a sense of nostalgia” to patrons.
“My restaurant is a place where all customers can come have a small taste of Hawaii,” said Colburn, who hails from Kāneʻohe. “To the Hawaiian community, it is a place where they can come feel the Aloha spirit, and taste the often missed flavors like Kalua pork and even something as simple as perfectly-cooked white rice (which we rinse four times until the water runs clear).”
Around 25% of his repeat customers are Hawaiians or islanders, he added. Ohana Island Kitchen was established by Colburn and his wife Regan in June 2016 – first as a pop-up takeout window operating out of the back of The Truffle Table at 2556 15th St. before moving to its current brick-and-mortar location.
The couple moved to Denver in 2011 after Colburn left the Air Force. The Mile High City’s Pacific Islander community pleasantly surprised him.
“I started to notice that there are not just one or two islanders out here,” Colburn said. “There’s no comparison to the Aloha spirit felt when you meet someone from the islands and have that in common.”
Rich Braunthal, chef and owner of Ohana Grille, also didn’t initially expect a Hawaiian community in Colorado when he moved to the state about 15 years ago. His family has resided in Honolulu since the 1980s.
He opened up a Hawaiian plate lunch food truck, operating first as Denver 808 Fusion Grindz, in 2015.
“People really just started to find me,” Braunthal said in a phone interview. “After a bit, I couldn’t even go out and park on the street anymore. All we were doing was private events.”
He’s noticed more Hawaiian events held in the Colorado over the last year and a half, adding that the culture has just “exploded.”
In 2017, Braunthal expanded to his Hawaiian fusion restaurant in Edgewater at 2045 Sheridan Blvd. — where the chef is also from Hawaii — then opened his Castlerock location at 2240 Mercantile St. in 2020. He also operates a takeout-only outpost in the Denver University area, and is considering another spot around Colorado Springs in the future.
Customers who notice the surfboards at his locations should know they’re not “bought on Craigslist,” but from his friends and brothers.
“We just wanted, hopefully, locals to feel somewhat at home,” Braunthal said. “I get a lot of ‘thank yous’ and a lot of ‘mahalos’ from the community.”
Denver Post reporter Megan Ulu-Lani Boyanton proudly identifies as “hapa.”
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