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Owners reminisce about a landmark Lahaina business: The Poi Factory

By Staff | Sep 30, 2010

Leslie Ferguson (right) and Patte Goff had a great time looking through old photos.

LAHAINA — Front Street establishments drift in and out as regular as the tides. It’s difficult to remember all the names, but there are a few that are woven into the fabric of old Lahaina Town — like the one that opened on Halloween night in 1973.

Proprietors Leslie Ferguson and Patte Goff were in their early 20s at the time. They arrived in Lahaina in 1970 along with a wave of young people from the Mainland.

“They ran an article in the Honolulu Advertiser, saying there were ten men for every woman in Lahaina, hoping they would get women to come to Maui,” Goff recalled.

Goff described the island scene with reverie: “Lahaina was a small village at the time. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody rode their bicycles.

“Life on Front Street,” Goff continued, “it was all the mom and pop stores. There were 30-cent tuna sandwiches. When the Navy would come to town, there were fights up and down the street at night.

Leslie Ferguson (left), Patte Goff and Maha take a break outside The Poi Factory during its heyday.

“The Maui Belle was in full tilt. Kimo’s was an empty lot. There was the Lahaina Yacht Club and lots of yacht races. The Broiler was there. They use to serve green sea turtle steak and turtle stew,” she continued.

“It was like family, and everybody knew everybody. It was fun.”

According to the duo, there were no other clothing stores to speak of along the historic corridor.

“Leslie and I decided that we were going to open up a shop and make everything in there,” Goff said.

And it happened the way events often unfold magically in a small town atmosphere — by word of mouth.

“It was the (former) Lahaina Poi Factory (819 Front St.), and it was owned by Nathaniel and Shirley Chung,” both ladies echoed simultaneously.

“Carol (Schram Von Tempsky) talked to Shirley, and Shirley and Nate said we could have the place,” Ferguson said.

“We took it over. We named it The Poi Factory, thinking poi, like poi dog — a little bit everything,” Goff added.

True to its name, the oceanside boutique carried a mermaid’s chest of treasures for the growing population of Mainland transplants, including puka shell necklaces, pareos, bikinis, hair brushes, artwork, slippers, lingerie, shorts, crochet tops and Christmas trees.

None was as well remembered, however, as the infamous Poi Factory dress.

“I still have the pattern,” Goff sighed.

Both designers remembered the wraparound bestseller in a rapid, ping-pong dialogue.

“It looked good on everybody.”

“One size fit all.”

The design was versatile, ideal tropical fashion.

“You could wear them to work. You could wear them to the beach, and you could wear them out for cocktails.”

Anne Haley was the “first cocktail waitress” at the Lahaina Yacht Club, and she later worked at the Blue Max.

“The Poi Factory made those fabulous dresses that we wore. I, at one time, probably owned easily 30 of them.”

Sue Danielson was a boat builder; she didn’t often wear dresses.

“What I remember most is the fact that every waitress in every restaurant wore their dresses… I did get one. It was a greenish-blue color, and the most comfortable thing I think I ever owned.”

Becky (Robertson) Santiago worked just down the block in the office at the Lahaina Yacht Club.

“We tanned at the beach ’til golden, jumped on the dive boats and fishing boats when we wanted to, hiked and brought plants home to grow in the yard. I shopped at the old Poi Factory. The ladies who worked there were friendly and fun. The store had things that were not in the other stores… I would purchase crocheted bikinis and pareos. I didn’t wear much else in those days,” Santiago said.

“Those ladies knew in their bones what their clientele wanted — light fabric, lots of color, attractive and practical style. I liked the crocheted halter over the lava lava myself,” Patty Montgomery, a former Lahaina denizen, remembered.

The prices were reasonable.

Swim suits were sold as separates for $5 each, top and bottoms. The Poi Factory dresses came in two designs. The long style was priced at $14 and the short at $12. The Suhana short sets sold for $14.

“The Poi Factory was in the day very cutting-edge with those wonderful bikinis and those dresses,” Haley added.

The creative team had a formula for their success: “We would start a fad, and everybody would buy them,” Goff said.

“And they did,” Ferguson said matter-of-fact.

“They did,” Goff continued. “So we did The Poi Factory dresses; we did the Flying Spark Plugs (slippers from Thailand); we did the puka shell necklaces; and we did the hair brushes.”

With an open air courtyard shaded by a mango tree, the trendy store expanded.

“We met Jeanette and Harlan (Dyckman) selling puka shells at Kaanapali, and Leslie invited them to come sell puka shells in our front yard,” Goff said

“They ended up selling gold and did quite well,” Ferguson noted.

“We rented the side area to Rocky. He did album covers for rock and rollers, and Steve and Carol Freeman ran the Shoe Fetish,” Goff added.

“We were the only shop with a front yard on Front Street. Everybody came by during the day. It was a big social stop,” Goff described with fondness.

“They not only provided the most comfy and beautiful clothing and accessories, but they promoted local artists, designers and craftspeople by providing an outlet for their products. They invested locally, and it gave their shop a unique local flavor — perfect for the hippie culture of the time,” Montgomery remembered.

The Poi Factory was a popular oasis attracting an eclectic mix of patrons.

“We had our rock stars, Cher, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nix… We had our local clientele We had older people. We had tourists, people from Upcountry,” Goff said.

They held fashion shows to benefit local causes, like Planned Parenthood, at the Blue Max, Mama’s Fish House and the Pioneer Inn.

The Poi Factory was an eight-year success with Goff and Ferguson at the helm.

Moving into the 1980s, however, “Lahaina changed.”

“Our rent went from $250 a month, including the two-bedroom house behind the shop, to like a couple of thousand dollars,” Goff said.

Both agreed, “it just wasn’t fun anymore.”

“We had a blast, and we would do it all over again,” Ferguson commented.

And both chimed in without hesitation and with a laugh, “but not at this age.”