How A Pipe-Dream Becomes A Soulful Reality ... A Deeply Personal Interview With Ed Thielk, The Founder Of Mana Foods
I'm so fortunate to have the opportunity to work with companies that I wholeheartedly believe in and was given the opportunity to interview the founder of Mana Foods.
The linear history and evolution of a business were simply what I'd expected to learn about by interviewing Ed Thielk, the founder of Mana Foods. Instead I was handed a rich, bitter-sweet story that made me acutely aware of how I’d naively forgotten that nothing in life stands alone as an isolated incident, and soulful businesses are not extinct.
“At the end of the day you need to ask yourself where is your life going? What do you want, and what do you need to make that happen?” -Ed Thielk
Mana Foods opened in 1983 and “back then it was this half-ass, half-renovated building that I rented for $160 per month.” -Thielk
Located in the same place Mana Foods is today, the initial space measured a mere 400-sq-ft, boasted a worn out cement floor, and an awkward accordion door. It lacked basic organization and aesthetic appeal, and seemed to have all odds against its survival. But, as irony would have it, this was the start of something very big.
“I’ve always been into healthy food. For as long as I can remember I understood and believed in the concept that whatever you put into your body would make a difference to you and your health, I was always working on finding the foods that would make me feel strong and overall better” -Thielk
New to Maui, and only 23 years old, Ed sold his car, gathered all the money he had and bought out the rental lease of the store for $500. $160 per month in ongoing rent came tagging along with this purchase.
With no money, no place to live, and no car, Ed started living in the “off-limits,” rundown shack behind Mana. The shack had holes in the walls, no running water, no electricity, and was a daily reminder of the risk Ed had just taken.
“The beginning was dead slow, Paia was a ghost town, there were these big swirls of dust that blew through the store and there were no customers – it was like a scene out of the old West or something. When the windsurfers started coming into town, that’s when the business started to see a little movement forward.” -Thielk
This, however, is not where the story of Mana began, far from it actually. The history and evolution of a business were simply what I’d expected to learn about by interviewing Ed Thielk, the founder of Mana Foods. Instead I was handed a rich, bitter-sweet story that made me acutely aware that I’d naively forgotten that nothing in life stands alone as an isolated incident, and soulful businesses are not extinct.
The True Beginning...
Ed Grew up in Ontario, Canada. He left home and headed out into the world on his own at age 15. In 1981 he moved to Maui predominantly because he loved surfing. For the following two years he worked as a surveyor's assistant, making $6 per hour. The unfamiliarity of a new place and financial pressure reminded Ed that he had a long way to go before Maui could truly feel like home.
Paia was also going through some challenging transitions at the time, The Co-op “Unity Circle” (located where the Wine Corner is now) went bankrupt and closed down. This space then became Haleakala Natural Foods, and then Paia General Store. When Paia General closed, Paia Town was left with no store to find a quick, healthy bite to eat.
“Picture this, I was just a young surfer guy, fresh from Canada, and my regular routine was to go surfing and then go to the natural food store in Paia to buy something to eat with the small amount of money I could dig up. When Paia General closed suddenly I couldn’t do that anymore. One day, after a good surf session, a buddy of mine said ‘Man, we should open a natural food store here, it would totally rock!’ and I said, ‘you know, that’s actually a really good idea!’”-Thielk
At age 23 Ed started his first and only business, Mana Foods.
1. Was there ever a time that you didn’t think that the business would survive? And if so, what was it that kept it going and kept you committed to making it work?
“From a very early age I knew I wanted to do something different, something meaningful, but being an outlier wasn't exactly a celebrated option for me. I wasn’t given much of an education, or raised in the most encouraging, supportive environment in regards to dreaming up and actualizing my future. It was standard protocol during those days to take any job that was offered and become the type of person that people expected you to become.” -Thielk
“It’s incredibly hard to step out from under the shadow of where you believe that you belong. But, for me, at the end of the day, I’ve always looked at what was in front of me and challenged it.” -Thielk
Elements of Ed’s past and pressure to conform haunted him from an early age and into adulthood.
But, no one ever said that change happens within your comfort zone, and Ed’s unsettling insecurity was ironically what spawned the ruthless bravery and determination needed to dream up, create and build Mana Foods.
The way I see it now, after hearing Ed’s story, Mana Foods is a tangible representation of Ed’s glorious rebuttal to the world that told him that doing something bold and different with his life wasn't easy or even possible.
2. Can you speak to a time/s when things were not easy in regards to keeping the business afloat and what it was that kept you going?
“Surfing was what I loved to do. At one point, while trying to get the store going, I had absolutely no money and the rent was late. My buddies and I were hanging out one night and one of them looked over at my only surfboard and said ‘you want to sell your surfboard? I’ll give you a hundred bucks right now?’ and so I did it.” -Thielk
Starting something new on you own can be terrifying, growing pains are inevitable, and the work is taxing and tedious. Mana Foods changed Paia, and in the beginning there were times when Ed experienced hints of resentment and tense competition from various companies and people.
But, in order to push through, Ed focused on what he set out to do. He put his head down and continued to build Mana into the community store with fair prices and a variety of healthy food. A store for everyone, and one that still stands true to its’ core values.
3. Have you had offers from people and/or companies to buy Mana Foods? What were your responses and why?
Ed is protective over Mana. He and the team that run the business keep it tightly aligned with its original values. He’s been asked by countless companies and individuals over the years if he’d sell the business. He’s been told to “name his price, any price” but the answer has always been “no”. To Ed, the team that runs Mana, and to many of its customers, Mana Foods is invaluable just the way it is!
“We’ve thought about opening another store but ultimately we decided it wouldn't work … Mana isn't something that you can recreate, its a one- of- a- kind and that’s what makes it so special.” -Thielk
It’s all too often that businesses put values second to the blinding dollar signs that inevitably overshadow ethical intentions. And, over time in these scenarios, what once was a unique, soulful business now is a hollow, heartless cash cow, where the values and good intentions are nowhere to be found.
This is what makes Mana a rare gem in the context of the general business world, and why even when told to “name his price” Ed’s answer has always been a simple but firm “no”. Mana Foods is a food store, a great one, but beyond that it’s an anomaly, and a brave rebel, just like its founder.
4. When I asked him if he was scared or intimidated during these challenging times he replied with...
“In retrospect, I realize that it’s like a marathon and you have to pace yourself. Feeling hyper-vigilant and knowing I’d feel that way until further notice made me chronically anxious. In the beginning I was running off what amounts to a lot of adrenaline and hyper-anxiety.” -Thielk
Mana Foods started in 1983 with Ed and one employee, and today (33 years later) there are 150 to 160 employees.
5. What has been the most rewarding thing about opening and running Mana?
“Creating an environment that’s not repressive, conventional or corporate. Creating a business that that embraces and respects humanity, one that I would enjoy working at, and primarily one where the employees are treated well. I don’t ever want people to have to work in the types of environments that I did I was young, or experience the type of humiliation and unhappiness that I did in these work environments. Life shouldn’t have to be that way, and I believe that very strongly.” -Thielk
6. What was your long term vision for mana and how much do you think this aligns with how it is now?
“You’re talking to a rebel, and at age 23 I definitely didn’t think in terms of visions, I just built what I wanted to build and went from there. However, in retrospect, Mana Foods is currently still built on, and running from the same core visions that I didn’t even know I’d originally had.” -Thielk
“It wasn’t until many years after I started the business that I realized all along I’d wanted to create a place that would serve people like me – just a guy living on Maui with no money, and I was trying to make a point that food didn’t need to be outrageously expensive by offering lower prices while still running a successful business. I wanted to create the ‘every man’s store, the every person’s store’.” -Thielk
Mana was created to be a business that doesn’t discriminate against anyone, customers and employees alike, while also being as functional and affordable as possible. It was designed to be a business that treats their employees well, always supports small local farmers and companies, and takes the steps to understand where the products they sell are coming from. From the beginning, and to this day, Mana highly prioritizes ethical, honest, environmentally-minded, high-quality business practices.
7. What’s your favorite thing about Mana?
“The business itself. I absolutely love this business and the content of this business. I love the freedom to keep it on a trajectory of improvement. Mana Foods is the antithesis of corporate and I am so proud of that.” -Thielk
“I love that it’s unique, constantly growing and evolving while remaining true to it’s core values. All decisions are made in-house with the intent to improve and grow the business.” -Thielk
“I love that our amazing tight-knit team gets to make all the rules. We get to decide to…" -Thielk
- be more environmentally friendly and actually take the steps do it immediately
- carry products from as many local companies as we possibly can
- always prioritize organic food
- compost all of our organic waste from the kitchen -Thielk
Ed feels that among other things, Mana has become a reflection of the community and the people that work there, and he’s incredibly proud of that.
8. Can you speak to all of the environmentally friendly practices that Mana has implemented to run the store in the most green way possible?
- The Mana Foods Bag Credit Program - promotes the use of reusable bags and donates to local organizations
- Solar PV system - this has cut the store’s electricity consumption in half
- All new coolers and freezers that are the most energy efficient type available
- LED lights are used throughout the store
- Excellent Insulation throughout the store to significantly reduce wasted energy
- All green waste is composted
- Religiously recycle
9. What are your main priorities when deciding what to carry?
- Supporting local companies
- Ensuring high quality ingredients
- Selling organic products as much as possible
- Offering a Wide variety of products in each department in order to meet customer demand
- Selling products from ethically run companies
10. How would you say Mana contributes to the community of Maui?
- Donations through various programs, such as the the Bag credit program
- Prioritizing the support of local farmers and companies
- Sponsoring local events as often as possible
- Utilizing and improving as many green business practices as possible
- Prioritizing fair prices, variety and quality
11. Has the success of Mana exceeded your initial expectations? If so, how so? If not, why?
“It has very much exceeded my expectations! Sometimes I’ll walk into Mana, especially after I’ve been off island for awhile, and I’ll think to myself ‘this store rocks!’ It never fails to impress me!” -Thielk
“It’s almost like my own version of the old Talking Heads song, ‘Once In a Lifetime’:
And you may ask yourself … How did this happen?
And you may ask yourself … Why am I so lucky to be part of such an amazing team?
And you may tell yourself …This is not my beautiful store
And you may tell yourself …This is not my incredible life” -Thielk
12. Coming full circle, is there anything you’d like to say about overall success, manifesting the life you want, or just any final thoughts you’d like to add?
“Always be gracious in victory, and let your accomplishments and the path you took to achieve them speak for themselves. And, again, at the end of the day remember to ask yourself where is your life going? What do you want, and what do you need to do to make that happen?” -Thielk
“More than anything, I feel so grateful for all of our employees and customers. Although I facilitated the start of Mana, and am currently still a big part of it, the employees and the community are really what make Mana a success and what truly impresses me. To me Mana Foods is a beautiful reflection of the community, it amazes me and makes me proud.” -Thielk