What started as a side hustle of making ice cream when the economy faltered during the COVID- 19 pandemic has turned into a full-time gig for Zachary Villanueva.

Villanueva, 32, had a full-time job as an experience manager at Ko Hana Distillers LLC during the day, and after work he and his wife, Courtney, high school sweethearts who married earlier this year, made ice cream late into the night. When his hours were cut after the start of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, Villanueva launched Sage Creamery LLC, a small-batch ice cream company named in honor of Zachary’s brother, Daniel Villanueva, who died in 2018 from blood cancer.

The Villanuevas said they referred to Daniel by the nickname Sage because of his free spirit and his search for truth and wisdom. “He was very authentic,” said Courtney Villanueva, 31.

Zachary Villanueva grew up in a family that loves baked treats. His mother often made Chinese almond cookies and chocolate chip cookies, while his father kept the freezer stocked with ice cream, Zachary’s favorite. “We’re definitely a sweets family,” he said. Villanueva, who first started making small batches of ice cream six years ago in a Cuisinart ice cream maker he bought off Craigslist, said he felt Hawaii was missing premium ice cream made with local ingredients.

The couple invested $10,000 to open Sage Creamery — most of the money went toward a new ice cream machine — and began promoting their flavorful products on social media. The company uses locally sourced ingredients such as vanilla beans from the Laie Vanilla Co., honey produced by Manoa Honey & Mead and chocolate from Manoa Chocolate Hawaii.

Now, more two years since its inception, Sage Creamery sells approximately 2,000 to 3,000 pints a month, with Cookies and Cream and North Shore Vanilla among customers’ favorites. The company features new flavors every month and sells pints at the Honolulu Farmers Market at the Neal Blaisdell Center on Wednesdays and Mililani Farmers Market on Sundays.

Sage Creamery ice cream also is available at Diamond Head Market & Grill, Feast restaurant in Manoa, ChadLou’s Coffee Roasters in Kailua, Residence Inn by Marriott in Kapolei as well as Monkeypod Kitchen in Ko Olina, where scoops are offered on the menu. Villanueva eventually left his job at Ko Hana, and his wife transferred all of the clients from her bookkeeping business to a fellow bookkeeper to run Sage Creamery together.

The Waipahu couple makes their ice cream at a commercial kitchen in Honolulu and purchased a food truck so they could participate in various events. In the coming months they plan to open a brick-and-mortar ice cream shop in Hoopili in West Oahu. The couple’s mission for Sage Creamery is to reflect Daniel Villanueva’s values of simplicity and quality of life by creating a business in a sustainable, authentic way that serves the community and tells Daniel’s story, Courtney Villanueva said. Small businesses like Sage Creamery are able to optimize showcasing their products via social media. “It’s been the reason for our success,” she added.

TINA YAMAKI, president of the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, said social media is a major marketing component for businesses, especially during the pandemic while many residents stay home and shop online. Fledgling entrepreneurs who shared personal stories of their start especially captured a lot of people’s attention, Yamaki said.

Burnout from previous jobs, layoffs and child care issues are some of the reasons people decide to open their own businesses. Despite the challenges of inflation, supply chain shortages and shipping delays, the entrepreneurial spirit in many persists.

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said many people saw the pandemic as an opportunity to be innovative and to pursue their passion. The tough economic environment also focused attention on supporting local small businesses and brought together partnerships between local producers and retailers.

“That community support has continued that allows more to open their business because of this wave of community support that
continues to move forward,” Menor-McNamara said.

Leah Lukela, who started Dis-and-Bark LLC in June 2021, remembers the first pet store she approached to carry her dog toys.
She presented owner Garrick Higuchi of Enchanted Lake Pet Center in Kailua her first sample of a stuffed, rainbow shave ice dog toy.

“I said, ‘This is my first design and the only one I have right now. And I don’t know the process for becoming part of your store, but if you would take this leap of faith with me, I promise I won’t let you down,’” recalled Lukela, 28, of Ewa Beach. He instantly ordered 50 and told her to send him an invoice when the toys were ready. “I didn’t expect that. I thought he would order maybe like 10,” Lukela said.

“He inspired me a lot,” she said of Higuchi. “He taught me very early into the business that supporting the community always comes first. You’re supporting the community that supports you.”

Since then the pet store has ordered every dog toy she has created. Dis-and-Bark products have since expanded to more than 30 stores in Hawaii that include Foodland Farms and The Public Pet. A couple of pet stores in San Jose, Calif., and Henderson, Nev., also carry her dog toys.

In mid-July, Lukela left her job as a container yard supervisor at Matson to devote her time and energy to her business. She said she named her company Dis-and-Bark to reflect a positive transition in life and to leave all things behind that no longer serve a purpose.

Lukela said she decided to create dog toys resembling Hawaii’s local foods and treats after seeing pizza and hamburger toys on the shelves at pet stores. Sweet bread rolls, li hing gummy worms and Spam musubi are among the items she designed. Like Sage Creamery, social media played a huge role in Dis-and-Bark’s growth.

“All my success is credited to social media,” Lukela said.

Every family member has a role in her business. Her dogs, Rollo, Moose and Maya, are the toy testers before she sends sample designs to a manufacturer overseas. And her supportive husband helps pack shipping orders. During its launch in August of new and restocked toys on the Dis-and-Bark website, the business sold out four of Lukela’s dog toy designs in the first two minutes, including a popcorn bag filled with stuffed toy popcorn, sakura kakimochi and nori maki.

Lukela plans to have another launch of new dog toys in November. Her goal is for Dis-and-Bark to become a household name. “I’m truly living the life I’ve always dreamed of, which is, like, talking, meeting new people and being able to meet their dogs,” Lukela said. “Being able to give back to the community … this is exactly what I’ve always wanted.”