New Iliahi Dragon Cafe Brews Coffee, Scholarships Daily

Jessica Goolsby
Wednesday - November 25, 2009
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Kristine Taylan, Kiana Kamikawa and Kamana Akagi are three of six Leilehua High School seniors participating in Iliahi Elementary School’s cafe program this year. Here, they display the daily menu board.

The best part of waking up is knowing that there’s a scholarship in your cup. At least that’s the idea behind Iliahi Elementary School’s Iliahi Dragon Cafe, which will set up Saturday and Sunday at Hawaii Okinawa Center’s Winter Craft Fair, selling its packaged brand of coffee and giving samples to the crowd.

Six students from Leilehua High School currently provide the manpower for the unique project, which is managed by a committee of 17 of Iliahi’s highly enthused fourth- and fifth-graders.

The award-winning idea is to provide Iliahi students with business savvy, perk up adults with good coffee and earn scholarship funds for the teens who operate the cafe. An average of 35 to 45 neighbors, parents, teachers and staff patronize it from 6:45 to 7:45 a.m. weekdays in the Iliahi cafeteria, or they can choose the optional drive-through at the side door. Coffee is $1 per cup, and the cafe also has gift baskets and gourmet coffees. The public is welcome to stop by for a morning boost.


“We got to thinking,‘What part do we play after the students leave us and go on to middle school, high school and beyond?’ We just knew we wanted to help,” said Iliahi principal James Albano.

The caffeine enterprise, which opened in August 2008, earned enough profit in its first year to give six $1,000 college scholarships last spring to its Leilehua student “employees.”

Kiana Kamikawa with the cafe’s convenient drive-through stand. Photos courtesy of Tom Yamamoto.

The concept for the cafe began percolating two years ago when several Iliahi faculty and staff attended a model schools conference in Florida.

They learned of other schools’ success stories, and teacher Tom Yamamoto was inspired by Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain High School, which ran a similar cafe. He returned to Wahiawa determined to create a student-run establishment of his own.

“I could see this excitement in his eyes, and I asked him if this was something he wanted to really pursue,” recalled Albano.“I told him, ‘Do what you have to do to get this off the ground, and I’ll do whatever I can to make sure it happens.’”

It’s definitely off the ground. The cafe earned Yamamoto the Innovation by an Individual award Oct. 9 from Gov. Linda Lingle.

Coscina Brothers Coffee Co. in Honolulu, which supplies the coffee and packaged items, is a key partner. Owner Alfred Coscina even allows the Dragon Cafe to mix and package the beans with their own label printed through DAGA Hawaii LLC.

“Our label was created by one of our (high school) students last year, Bryson Sevilla,“Yamamoto said.“He received one of our scholarships and is a freshman at UH-Manoa now.”

Leilehua’s seniors come in to set up at 6 a.m., run the cafe and make it back in time for classes a few blocks down California Avenue from Iliahi. They earn one course credit for coming up with promotional ideas as well as running the cafe.

The cafe teens also will participate in various craft fairs this year. And not to worry, parents. None of the youths is allowed to buy or drink the caffeine. “That’s always a top health concern,” Yamamoto pointed out, “so I want to make sure people know that we keep the coffee and stuff away from the kids.”

Cafe employees go through a rigorous hiring process, Albano explained, and it’s not exactly your typical interview. “Our elementary students conduct the interviews for the cafe, and they are very serious about it. They’re learning aspects of running a business at a very early age on top of other math and social skills. The reward for us is having all these students continue on to higher education. With the rising cost of college tuition these days, it helps out when we can offer these scholarships.

“It’s just very satisfying.” For more information on the Iliahi Dragon Cafe, call 622-6411 or visit



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