The Island Baker
Meet biology major Eric Cox ’90, owner of Papa’a Palaoa Bakery in Hilo, Hawaii.
Eric Cox lives in a small house nestled inside a lush rainforest on the eastern edge of the Big Island of Hawaii.
Six days a week, Cox leaves home just before midnight and drives about 20 miles to the city of Hilo, maneuvering through the quiet city streets until he hits Kilauea Avenue. There, he unlocks the door to his bright blue-painted bakery, Papa’a Palaoa, and gets to work.
While most of the island sleeps, Cox measures and mixes age-old recipes for breads, scones and muffins, pies, cakes, cookies and more, and looks forward to the day ahead.
As the clock inches closer to 7 a.m. – the hour the bakery’s doors will officially open for customers – heavy, heavenly and homey scents begin to fill the air. You know the kind – those cozy, feel-good, almost-intoxicating smells of warm apples, cinnamon, yeast, melted chocolate, and freshly ground coffee.
Once the doors are open, Cox waves to his regular customers and greets those who say they were drawn into his shop simply by the scent of fresh baked goods.
"My favorite thing is seeing people pass the front window, come back, walk in and say, ‘It smells so good. What are you making?’ That makes me so happy,” Cox said.
The happiness he finds in making people good food, combined with his adventuresome spirit and a belief in the power of possibility has propelled this 1990 Augie grad throughout his life. And, throughout the world.
This is the story of how the Island Baker came to be.
Finding His Way
A native of Colorado, Cox majored in biology at Augustana because it was his favorite subject in high school.
“I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do after graduation. I’d thought about becoming a teacher. I’d thought about going to seminary. I even thought about going to culinary school. I just figured a job would come along,” he said.
His experience working in restaurants during high school enabled him to receive a work study position within Augustana’s food service beginning in his freshman year.
“I worked upstairs in the kitchen doing everything from serving to prepping to washing dishes. I also worked on the grill in the Huddle.”
In the classroom, he developed an interest in environmental studies. He and a group of fellow students founded Augie Green, a student organization dedicated to environmental awareness and the promotion of sustainability.
After Augustana, he headed north – way north.
Following graduation he took a job as a fisheries observer for the commercial fishing industry in Alaska. From there, he entered the Peace Corps where he supported local fruit farmers in Senegal, West Africa, for two years before returning to Alaska. He went on to work for the United Way of Anchorage where he served as the agency’s director of resources, overseeing the organization’s computer systems, managing various programs, and coordinating corporate donations.
In 2005, he got, what he calls, “the bug to move to Hawaii.”
The Next Journey
After arriving in Hawaii, Cox lived in a small cabin during the construction of his permanent home. At the time, he said he struggled to find a bakery that offered good-tasting, fresh baked bread.
“So I started baking bread at home,” Cox said. “Friends loved it and told me to sell it at farmer’s markets. So, one weekend I decided to try it. I took it to a farmer’s market and it just grew from there.”
In 2006, he and his partner, Paul Lackner, opened Papa’a Palaoa Bakery. The name means “slice of bread” in Hawaiian.
Cox describes it as “a kind of neighborhood, old-school bakery.”
“We came here and really wanted to be part of the community – that’s why we buy local as much as we can. We buy locally grown chicken and beef to use in our sandwiches and we buy from about 10 different local egg producers. We want to be in the community and part of the community. That means using as much local agriculture as we can.
“We’ve gotten to know hundreds of people and are really part of their lives. We have our regular customers who come every single week. We even get invitations to their weddings and their birthday parties – and not just to bring the cake – but to be guests,” Cox said, laughing. “We love being part of this community. We have people who come in on a daily basis and say, ‘I’m so grateful you’re here and that you provide good food for us. Thank you and bless you.’ I really appreciate that. That means I’m doing my job; it means I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”
A Day in the Life of a Baker
Cox says his entrepreneurial spirit has been key to running and growing the bakery.
“Starting out, I knew nothing about running a business. My partner, Paul, however, was excellent at it,” he said. Over time, and through trial and error, Cox said he and his team have developed best practices and techniques to improve efficiency and grow profitability.
“We started out small and didn’t grow too big too fast,” he said. “Today we’re making 140 dozen cookies and close to 1,000 loaves of bread each week.”
Among the fan favorites are the chocolate chip walnut cookies – made from Cox’s mother’s recipe.
In addition to its retail customers, the bakery also serves wholesale clients and still visits some local farmer’s markets on weekends.
Looking back, Cox says being a part of Papa’a Palaoa Bakery has made him happy.
“Food has always been a vehicle to connect with people. There’s just some sort of joy that I get from making people happy with food. I’ve cooked all my life so it’s not a surprise that I ended up where I ended up.”