Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, June 14, 2001

"If you have the right idea and the product, and have
patience, and you work hard enough and enough hours,
there's a good potential to make money out here," said
Greg Azus of Hawaii's Natural High. He showing
off his selection of incense.

20-year high

Hawaii's Natural High has survived
by adjusting to the highs and lows
of retail merchandising

By John Berger

If Greg Azus had grown up in Florida instead of Chicago we might not be celebrating the 20th anniversary of Hawaii's Natural High.

"I came for vacation on New Year's Eve out of Chicago. There it was freezing. Here it was beautiful. Fireworks were legal all over the place so it was, like, what a time to come to Hawaii! New Year's Eve and everybody's throwing fireworks! It was an unbelievable feeling."

"When I went back to Chicago there was, like, icicles coming down my apartment house."

Two weeks later Azus moved to Hawaii. He had no contacts and no friends here. What he had was $2,500 in his pocket and the desire to succeed.

That was 26 years ago. Azus "worked the flea market" until he had the wherewithal for a stand on Kalakaua where he sold pipes and smoking accessories. Finally he had enough money to move his business off the street and open a conventional store.

He called it Hawaii's Natural High.

"I enjoy what I'm doing. I look forward to coming
to work every day because of the people that I meet,"
said Greg Azus, owner of Natural High.

Azus is celebrating the store's 20th anniversary with a party at the Wave Waikiki Saturday. Doors open to the public at 10 p.m. with live music and contests and giveaways organized by the Wave and 97.5 KPOI.

Azus was 20 when he moved here but had much more business experience than most guys his age. He'd spent several years working for an uncle in the fur and leather business and had managed several of his uncle's stores while still in high school.

"It was a slow process in the beginning but I saw a lot of opportunity in Hawaii then -- and a lot of opportunity now. If you have the right idea and the product, and have patience, and you work hard enough and enough hours, there's a good potential to make money out here."

Staying in business wasn't always easy for Azus, considering the ups and downs of Hawaii's fragile unstable economy and the whims of the government. He saw Waikiki's summer crowd shrivel after the drinking age was raised to 21, taking Hawaii off the summer fun map for adults ages 18 to 20.

Then Azus was forced to revamp his inventory when some types of smoking items were suddenly banned or restricted in Honolulu due to their association with certain trendy, though illegal, substances.

Losing his Harley-Davidson/Hawaii's Natural High T-shirts called for another adjustment. "Those were one of my best-selling items here and then the Harley people got on our case because we had our store name on the back. At the time we used to sell five or 10 Harley shirts a day."

Azus simply kept trying new merchandise. A key to his survival over the years has been his willingness to assess the market, take risks, and explore potential business opportunities.

Azus started out at 339 Saratoga selling records, T-shirts, incense and the ever-popular smoking accessories. When more space became available, he created On Stage Hawaii, a clothing store, and sold spandex and leather clothing and accessories popular with rock musicians and club denizens. Azus branched out further when he opened a second On Stage Hawaii store in what had been Garb Age next to Wave Waikiki.

It was around that same time that he founded "On Stage Hawaii Magazine," an entertainment tabloid successor to John Leonard's "Sunbums" of the '70s. The Honolulu entertainment scene needed a quality free entertainment publication and Azus saw his paper double in size and change from black-and-white to four-color in a little more than a year. He eventually sold it to Aloha Funway Rental which in turn sold it to 98Rock KPOI (currently 97.5 KPOI).

Meanwhile, more space became available back at 339 Saratoga and Azus opened the On Stage Deli. That particular experiment -- a sit-down deli and Italian ice cream parlor -- was relatively short-lived. Azus sold the equipment after eight months and moved Hawaii's Natural High into it.

Azus' original Hawaii's Natural High has been there ever since. In recent years he's been content to concentrate on the original store. Among the big sellers these days are Grateful Dead Beanie Bears; Azus estimates collectors have 60 or 70 bears to choose from. He has also expanded the selection of incense, stickers, black lights, T-shirts and hats. And then there are the Hawaii's Natural High gum balls in mango, passion fruit, kiwi and banana.

"We've tried a lot of things over the years, but I like to keep it simple. In the past five years we've settled with the one store. I have customers that have been doing business with me for 15 or 20 years, and I have second-generation customers -- people that came here, now their children are coming here."

Azus is currently looking at expanding Hawaii's Natural High in Waikiki and expanding his worldwide market via the Internet.

The bottom line? Azus is still having fun.

"I enjoy what I'm doing. I look forward to coming to work every day because of the people that I meet. When it comes a time that I don't look forward to being here, that's the time that I'll close it up, but so far it's an enjoyable thing to do."


Hawaii's Natural High 20th Anniversary Party

When: 10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Wave Waikiki, 1877 Kalakaua. Ave.
Call: 926-3000.

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