Big rays of sunlight stream through the large glass windows at the front of Aloha Sunday’s shop on University and 31st, in the heart of San Diego’s North Park community. A diverse hodge-podge of business professionals, college kids, and locals meander by, peering in at the careful attention to detail that has been given to the front window display, including a wooden handmade bench, an oversized vintage clothing trunk, three large wooden tree stumps converted into stools, and a navajo-print embroidered rocking chair.
Not too many young entrepreneurs in their 20s can say they’ve already established themselves in an industry as competitive as that of action sports, let alone claim both a retail and brand presence. But Hawaii native Kahana Kalama, who grew up in the surf culture and spent nearly six years working in the industry, can certainly attest to all of the above. As he sits in the oversized rocking chair on a Tuesday, watching passers by and chatting with Aloha Sunday’s co-owner and GM Billy Wickens— who also comes from an action sports background—Kalama is relaxed, but the passion and excitement behind his recent endeavor is clear as he explains the story of creating his own business. The shop, which will celebrate its one-year anniversary in May, came as an afterthought to Kalama’s brand, and has played an integral role in getting the Aloha Sunday name on the radar.
“We are a surf inspired store, but not necessarily a surf shop,” he says. “We wanted to create a space that would speak to surfers but that wouldn’t make non-surfers feel left out. We used to work on the brand side of things and one thing that we felt was really compelling was having a physical space and place where people can come and interact with the brand.”
From the location, to the brands the shop carries, Aloha has truly embraced the definition of doing things differently. Although they’ve encountered some criticism about the location—primarily the fact that it’s miles inland from the beach—Kalama and Wickens say that North Park’s young demographic make it the perfect location for a brick-and-mortar door. At the same time, the shop’s main focus is to reach a much broader audience than just San Diego, and places high importance on holding events that speak to a range of age groups, personalities, and geographic regions. Aloha also launched an ecommerce site in October, with a similar offering to what shoppers can find in store. The two owners make it clear that they support the surf industry one hundred percent, but their business model is one that goes against the grain when it comes to stocking more widely distributed, well-known brands.
“We make it a really big priority to get to know the people behind the brands, and understand that it’s not going to benefit us to sell something that is sold all over the place,” says Kalama. “That's a given. We can't do what everyone else is doing.”
Footwear brand Oliberté, which is manufactured entirely in Africa and helps local communities by providing employment opportunities, is the type of company that Aloha prides itself on working with, along with Warriors of Radness, Shwood, and Pidgin Orange, to name a few. Ethical manufacturing practices as well as a solid brand story are crucial to the selection process, says Kalama: “We like to carry products that you can actually see the value in. It's pretty easy to look at something and tell whether its quality. It's kind of like when you spend time with someone – you can tell what they're after. Are they trying to just make a whole bunch of money, or are they trying to put something really awesome into the marketplace?”
The presentation of the store reflects the same thoughtful outlook, with unique POP and merchandising displays for apparel, footwear, and surf hardgoods, all positioned against the backdrop of a beautifully finished wooden wall that Kalama and Wickens built by hand, using reclaimed wood scraps from a friend’s barn in Oregon.
For Kalama, the Aloha Sunday brand has been an ongoing project, and when the opportunity to open a retail space presented itself, he felt strongly that the timing was right to start slowly positioning the brand in front of consumers. The limited collection of board shorts and T-shirts has deliberately been kept small to ensure an organic growth strategy in which the brand does things the right way the first time around. “You never have that opportunity to start over again,” says Kalama.
Still, the two business owners are dedicated to taking risks, and despite a consistent down economy, the process has been surprisingly easier then Kalama and Wickens had initially expected. A big reason for that, says Kalama, is the passionate crew behind Aloha, who fall into that “Gen Y” category when it comes to thinking outside the box, accepting the idea of doing things differently, and who have given themselves permission to take a leap of faith.
“Quitting your job to start something holds a lot of people back from doing things,” says Wickens. “If you are working for someone else and applying yourself creatively and giving yourself to a company, then you can do those same things and do it for yourself. Not that working for someone else is bad at all, but if you have the desire to work for yourself it's totally doable. It definitely takes sacrifice. I think it's just realizing that you don't need a lot.”
Aloha believes that remaining humble is key, as the shop continues to develop genuine partnerships and take small, precise steps toward growing the business.
“We are this younger generation that likes to blur professional and personal,” says Kalama.” This is our life. It's all about the people behind everything. It's not about the transaction, it's about the people.”