Star-Bulletin Features

Wednesday, September 1, 1999

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
A dish created for the Maui Taro Burger: a salad of baby greens
with Hearts of Palm Vinaigrette from Acqua. Recipe here.

Building a better burger

Bullet Veggie burger three-way taste test
Bullet Make your own veggie burger
Bullet Learn more about the vegan lifestyle

Betty Shimabukuro


Where the aloha spirit and capitalism meet, you have the Maui Taro Burger.

This purely vegetarian product -- pure vegan, in fact, which means no dairy or egg products -- represents for Robert Mitnick, owner of the Hawaii Taro Co., a worthy commodity that can give back to the islands as much as it takes.

"I really believe that a big point in helping our economy here is diversified agriculture, with high-end, value-added food products to export worldwide."

His little burgers represent all that: A product that takes locally grown taro, luau leaves and other produce and turns them into an item worth more than the sum of its parts.

The Maui Taro Burger is only about 2 years old, appearing first in restaurants and for the last few months in two-patty packs in grocery store freezers. It is now served in more than 70 restaurants statewide.

And this is only the beginning, Mitnick promises. He's outfitting a new plant in Haiku that will be able to produce 8 million burgers a year, and he's aiming at national, if not international, sales. Portland and Seattle are likely upcoming markets.

"I've been planning my production to go as high as 100 million burgers," he says.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Ponciano Alonzo Jr., cook at the Daily Scoop and a veggie burger
judge, tastes, from the top, the Boca Burger, Maui Taro
Burger and Garden Burger.

"One marketing specialist has gone to Japan already. We're going to go to the Middle East, too."

This means going up against the primary patty of the market, Gardenburger, which looms so large in the veggie burger world that its name is almost generic, like Kleenex or Styrofoam.

Mitnick does have the better burger. In a Star-Bulletin blind taste test, the Maui Taro Burger scored far higher than the Gardenburger and the also well-established Boca Burger. Out of a possible 70 points, the taro burger earned 56. The Gardenburger weighed in at 42; the Boca Burger scored just 33.

"Wonderful texture, feels good in the mouth," one judge said about the taro burger. "The vegetables and grains have real substance and a variety of tastes and textures."

"Good and chewy," was another's more economical statement.

Mitnick describes himself as an omnivore -- an eater of meat, but lots of vegetables, too. He says the taro burger isn't aimed solely at the vegan consumer, and it's not meant to resemble a hamburger.

"I eat it with everything. I have it with eggs and bacon, or meat and chicken, as a side dish."

Managing sales and assisting with production issues, research and development is Anthony Spadaro, owner of Spadaro's Sausage Co.

Other than that, Hawaii Taro is pretty much a family business. Mitnick's daughter, Robin Uilani Imonti, is vice president for production and quality control; her husband, Christopher Imonti, is marketing and sales coordinator; his sister, Deborah Imonti, is vice president of operations in California. Mitnick's wife, Florence, also helps out wherever needed.

The company has had financial help from the Small Business Development Center of Hawaii, Maui Economic Opportunity and a federal Rural Economic Transition Assistance grant.

The taro burger is made from dryland taro grown on mostly on the Big Island, but also Maui and Kauai. Spices and brown rice come from the mainland, but luau leaf and other vegetables are all purchased from island farms, Mitnick says. (The burger, he says, "has nothing in it you can't pronounce.")

The start-up success of the product has meant he's been able to enter agreements with taro farmers, guaranteeing them sales so that they can plant more. He doesn't anticipate a supply problem, nor does he expect to impact poi production, since most poi comes from wetland taro.

His aim is to keep the money here, and his loyalty is fierce. "What has always bothered me is how someone will start a small business here with, say, a food product, and it will grow and then it will be sold and then it will go to the mainland and the mainland will use the marketability of our Hawaii name."

That name, Mitnick says, is worth a lot. "We have the best marketable ambience in the 50 states. We're the farthest place from anyplace, we have clean water and air, we have a multicultural society that really works. That's what aloha really is. All that sells."



4 Maui Taro Burger patties
6 ounces mesclun (4 generous handfuls of greens)

Bullet Hearts of Palm Vinaigrette
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup salad oil
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1-1/2 ounces hearts of palm, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped onion
2-3 mint leaves, chopped

To make vinaigrette: Mix vinegar and sugar. Slowly add oil. Add remaining ingredients. Set aside.

Prepare patties according to package directions. Divide greens among four plates and toss each serving with 1-1/2 to 2 tablespoons vinaigrette. Refrigerate leftover dressing. Top each plate with a burger. Serves 4.

Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 420 calories, 29 g total fat, 1.5 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 300 mg sodium.*

Make your own
veggie burger

To create your own veggie patties or meat-free loaf, Harriet Yafuso, a judge in our burger taste test offers the following formula. Simply make your choice of one ingredient from each category:

Bullet Legumes: 2 cups of cooked lentils, tofu or kidney, garbanzo, pinto or soy beans

Bullet Grains: 1 to 2 cups of whole-grain bread crumbs or cereal flakes, rolled oats, brown rice, Grape-Nuts cereal, wheat cracker crumbs or croutons.

Bullet Nuts: 1/2 cup chopped nuts or pumpkin or sunflower seeds.

Bullet Liquid: 1/2 cup vegetable broth, soy or grain milk, tomato juice or sauce.

Bullet Binder: 2 tablespoons soy or wheat flour, 2 to 3 tablespoons gluten flour, 3 tablespoons potato flour or tapioca, 1/2 cup cooked oatmeal or Cream of Wheat.

Bullet Seasonings: 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of any combination of spices such as cumin, basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, celery salt, garlic, onion salt, Liquid Aminos.

Bullet Vegetable seasonings: 1 chopped onion, 1 to 2 cloves minced garlic, 2-3 tablespoons pimento, etc.

Mix ingredients. To make a loaf, press into a sprayed pan and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Or form into patties and bake or brown in a skillet.

For example, here is Yafuso's preferred formula:


1 cup cooked garbanzo beans
1/4 cup rice milk (see note)
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup minced green peppers
1/2 cup shredded carrots
1 onion, minced
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped fine
1 tablespoon Liquid Aminos (see note)
2 teaspoons McKay's Beef Style Seasoning (see note)
1 teaspoon sage

Process garbanzos and milk in a blender until smooth, adding more milk if needed. Pour into a bowl and add remaining ingredients.

Drop by spoonfuls onto a skillet sprayed with oil. Flatten each patty with the back of a spoon. Cover and brown slowly, about 20 minutes per side. Makes 8 patties.

Notes: Rice milk is available in supermarkets next to canned or boxed milks. Liquid Aminos is a substitute for soy sauce and is available at Longs Drugs stores and other markets. McKay's seasoning is available at health-food stores.

Approximate nutritional information, per patty: 140 calories, 6.5 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, no cholesterol, 210 mg sodium.*

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Judges Diane Ching, left, and Harriet and Masa Yafuso are vegans.

The veggie burger
three-way taste test

Bullet Judges: Three vegans from the Seventh-day Adventist Church, one in-house vegan and three carnivores.

Bullet The burgers: Sampled were the Gardenburger, original flavor; Boca Burger, also original flavor; and the Maui Taro Burger. The second two are vegan products; the Boca is non-fat.

Bullet Preparation: The patties were grilled at the Daily Scoop cafe in the News Building; each judge received one patty of each type with no condiments

Bullet Highlights: The Boca most closely resembled meat, which was a turn-off for most judges. The Maui burger was the largest, 3.4 ounces compared to 2.5 for the others, and the most attractive. Judges were most divided on the Gardenburger, with some finding the taste rich another saying it was like "fried oatmeal."



Bullet Score: 56 points out of a possible 70
Bullet Ingredients: Taro, brown rice, luau leaf, carrots, corn meal, onions, oats, tomatoes, soy oil and flavorings
Bullet Nutritional breakdown: 150 calories, 1 g fat, no sat fat or cholesterol, 290 mg sodium, per patty
Bullet Price: About $3.19 for two 3.4-ounce patties; or $1.60 per patty
Bullet Made in: Haiku, Maui


Bullet Score: 42
Bullet Ingredients: Mushrooms, brown rice, onions, mozzarella cheese, nonfat milk, cornstarch, rolled oats, cottage cheese curd, egg whites, bulgur wheat and flavorings
Bullet Nutritional breakdown: 130 calories, 3 g fat, 1g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 290 mg sodium, per patty
Bullet Price: $7.69 for eight 2.5-ounce patties; about 96 cents per patty
Bullet Made in: Portland, Ore.


Bullet Score: 33
Bullet Ingredients: Soy protein, purified water, vegetable fiber, dehydrated onion, fresh garlic and flavorings
Bullet Nutritional breakdown: 84 calories, no fat or cholesterol, 269 mg sodium, per patty
Bullet Price: $4.39 for four 2.5-ounce patties; about $1.10 per patty.
Bullet Made in: Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Classes teach vegan cooking

Masa Yafuso was already a vegetarian seven years ago when his doctors told him he was going to need a heart bypass. He was on five medications for high blood pressure and his heart condition, and expected to be popping pills for life.

But at age 64 and on the verge of retirement, Yafuso decided instead of surgery to grab control of his health. He went from vegetarian to vegan -- dropping dairy and egg products from his diet along with meat.

No bypass. He lost weight. And, "today I don't take any pills."

Yafuso, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, had the help of the church's Weiman Institute, a health center near Sacramento, Calif.

For those without that advantage, Yafuso and his wife, Harriet, conduct annual classes in vegan cooking. This year's classes will be offered from 2 to 4 p.m. Sundays through September at the Manoa Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Affiliation with the church is not required to attend.

"What we are trying to do is help everyone understand the healthy lifestyle," Yafuso said.

The class agenda:

Bullet Sunday: Breakfast ideas

Bullet Sept. 12: Meal planning

Bullet Sept. 19: Using ingredients from the garden

Bullet Sept. 26: Picnic ideas

Registration is required. Call 247-5779.

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