Born and raised in the charming, historic upcountry town of Hōlualoa, Mark Kove says, “I grew up surrounded by coffee, yet I never cared about coffee at all.” That all changed following a life and career-altering event and years of international travel.
Today, Mark is one of Hawai’i Island’s most passionate and progressive coffee roasters – and the 2023 U.S. Roasting Competition Hawaiian regional Champion – as well as a master latte artist with his own specialty coffee roasting company, White Nene, founded in 2020 and based in Kailua-Kona. It was a long and winding road that led him back to Hōlualoa and the work and life he now shares with his wife Saebom Choi and son Loha.
The son of Cambodian refugees – survivors of the Killing Fields during the Tet Offensive by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime during its rule of the country – Mark’s parents lived for four years under the communist regime, working as slaves in the rice fields.
“My parents escaped on foot, crossing the Thai border to a refugee camp, where they remained from 1972-1976. They eventually received a sponsorship from the U.S. government to move to Long Beach, California. However, at the urging of friends they had met at the refugee camp, they moved to Hawai’i Island in the early 1980s,” Mark says. “It was perfect timing, as my father was a general contractor and the construction industry was booming here at the time.”
It was a career Mark was excited about pursuing after working with his father building homes in the Kona community – work he says stirred his heart. That plan was shattered literally and figuratively, however, in 2005 when at age 19 he suffered a serious construction site accident, resulting in a spinal injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
What followed was more than three years at a rehabilitation facility in California – sixteen months as an in-patient, and two years as an out-patient. “Early on, I was stuck in a wheelchair and at the most hopeless place in my life. Eventually, it was there that I met who I needed to meet – loving, encouraging, uplifting people who cheered me on as I began to regain feeling in my right leg – first my toes, soon my ankle, then my knee and quads.”
With his left leg still partially paralyzed, but able to walk using forearm crutches, Mark returned to Hawaii Island to contemplate the next steps, which turned out to be many with more than a few twists and turns. They included a stint at university studying architecture which he soon found was not a fit, a year with Youth with a Mission, and finally six years in Korea learning the language, teaching English for two years and volunteering to help North Korean refugees.
“While in Korea, I actually had quite a bit of free time, which I spent checking out the various cafés. That’s where I discovered the artistic side of coffee – latte art – and learned how passionate people are about coffee,” Mark says. “I thought, hey, maybe I should check this out, learn about it, and start my own coffee-related business back on Hawai’i Island. In 2017, we packed up and moved back to Hōlualoa.”
Today, White Nene, sources coffee beans from six local growers in Kona, Hāmākua and Ka’ū. Mark says Kona farms produce primarily one varietal – 90% are planted to typica coffee trees originally imported from Guatemala – while Ka’ū has a diverse number of coffee beans, with red and yellow caturra among the most common.
His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: “Remember, it doesn’t hurt to dream and dream big, but be patient – things don’t happen overnight!”
With a focus on sourcing only the highest quality beans and with a limited annual production, White Nene’s coffee is only available for purchase online (WhiteNeneCoffee.com) or at their Hōlualoa Coffee Trailer (located in Hōlualoa Town next to the Post Office) Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. There you can also sample the different coffees on offer and talk stories with Mark about everything from the meaning behind White Nene’s charming logo, to his coffee roasting techniques. You can even witness a latte art demonstration, including tips for you to try at home.
White Nene also offers an espresso catering service for special events, available at locations throughout Hawai’i Island. Contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details on the catering service.