As the only full-time employee at Monkeypod Jam, Aletha Thomas is as small as a small business can get. But her reach extends across oceans and brings people from the mainland to the island of Kauai, her home in Hawaii for 25 years.
Monkeypod originally focused on selling preserved fruit and pickled vegetables grown on the island, supplied by local farmers. It started as a project Thomas embarked on to help pay for her 2011 wedding and turned into a business that replaced her career as a teacher. Her growing team used the kitchen of a defunct fast-food restaurant to produce their small batches. Five years after they started, the growing company moved into a building that served as a storefront, tasting room and kitchen for cooking classes. At its pinnacle, 12 people were part of the team, and chefs from other islands and the mainland were flying there to guest teach classes.
The pandemic forced the shutdown of her brick-and-mortar establishment. Kauai’s lockdowns affected every business on the island.
“I was in shock and trying to figure out what I could do as a business owner,” she says. “I thought, I need to keep payroll going. I need to keep my community fed. And all of a-sudden, our farmers were no longer allowed at farmers markets. We needed to help them. I made a list and that turned into a business plan for most of 2020.”
Monkeypod created a coffee drive-through off the rear loading dock of Thomas’ café kitchen, which also served as the drop-off and pick-up for produce from local farmers. The company’s loyal longtime customers who lived on the mainland sponsored vegetable boxes for Kauai locals whose livelihoods had been hit hard by the shutdown. Thomas and her team also made takeout dinners while she also ran a one-room schoolhouse for her only child and several of her third-grade friends.Aletha Thomas holding a spam musubi created in her class
But as hard as Thomas tried to keep Monkeypod afloat, it wasn’t enough. Thomas had to close the business. After schools opened back up, she opened Monkeypod (V2) by leading small cooking classes – 12 people maximum – full-time using a cottage the family owned. While some participants flew in, most students were local.
Thomas taught them how to make marmalades and explained natural fermentation and basic preserving. And Thomas wasn’t the only classroom leader. Master butchers have flown from the mainland to teach students how to prepare a pig for making charcuterie and sausage. Monkeypod started a guest chef program that drew visitors – like the butchers – from the mainland and other islands in the state. The cottage became a place for them to stay while they taught.
As Thomas navigates these big changes in her life and business, she relies on her Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon to power through her many tasks and busy schedule.
“My Lenovo is such a good workhorse, I love it,” says Thomas, whose husband runs the IT department of a local resort and turned her onto the PCs. “They run hard, they’re fast, they don’t break, they don’t get glitchy. I am not a tech person. I’m very much a creative person, so it’s saved me.”Aletha Thomas working on her Lenovo laptop
Thomas writes emails using Outlook, and creates spreadsheets with Excel and grant proposals on PowerPoint. While she’s still new to Windows 11, she’s looking forward to using Phone Link, which recently started rolling out. In addition to basic iOS support for calls, messages and access to contacts, she’ll be able to see her phone photos on her PC within the iCloud for Windows app. “It’s all about saving time and staying connected when you have a small business.”
Thomas, who has a daughter and a husband who works long hours away from home, is always looking for ways to make the most of her time. She takes advantage of the power efficiency settings on her Lenovo because she’s often on-the-go visiting with farmers and can’t plug in.
Other Windows 11 features she likes are snap layouts (“great to have multiple things open all in one screen”), focus sessions (“because I do have limited time and because I’m so scattered”) and widgets (“so I can keep up with my local and Pacific Northwest news and weather”).It’s all about saving time and staying connected when you have a small business.Originally from Portland, Oregon, Thomas moved to Kauai in 1998 just after she graduated from college to teach sixth graders at a private school. She committed to a four-year contract.
But she never left the island.
“I fell in love with the island and the lifestyle,” she says. “My personality is really conducive to this lifestyle.”
She taught at the school for eight years, then shifted over to marketing before coming back to teaching. For Thomas, a teaching degree was something she could always fall back on, a constant resource that led to reliable work.Monkeypod Jam’s teaching kitchen and patio
Kauai, the oldest of the Hawaiian Islands, appealed to Thomas on many levels. Because of her upbringing in the Pacific Northwest, the amount of green in Hawaii felt like home. She could never live in a desert or somewhere landlocked. She also liked the laidback environment and how many people from back home lived there. At the same time, the activities available to her were plentiful: surfing, paddling and canoeing.Students learning how to make spam musubi
“I love the freedom you have here, opportunities to be creative and reinvent yourself,” she says. “It’s remarkable. That’s what allowed me to start Monkeypod.”
In 2011, Thomas got married. In the lead-up to the wedding, her teaching hours were cut to four days a week and she was looking for a way to help pay for the ceremony and reception. She turned to her parents’ Midwest roots in preserving food and Monkeypod was born. (Monkeypod is a type of tree common to the South shore of Kauai, where Thomas lives.)
It keeps evolving and iterating more than a decade later, with Thomas’ classes. One experience takes students to the farmer’s market, where they get to know what’s in season and what will be ripe in time for cooking. They sample these fruits and vegetables, take them back to the Monkeypod kitchen and make a vegetarian meal.
“It’s a lot of fun and a lot of education,” says Thomas, who’s found a way to be a full-time teacher again.
Head over to Monkeypod Jam to check out those classes.
Lead photo: Aletha Thomas working on her Lenovo laptop at her teaching cottage