This article was sponsored by The Papaya Exchange.
With her gift design service, The Papaya Exchange, founder Janean Abbott offers a platform for local businesses in Hawai‘i to flourish.
Growing up, Janean Abbott’s grandparents always kept their home stocked with papayas. Each week, they would go to the local farmers market and bring back a bounty of plump papayas for their grandkids to enjoy. When Abbott got older, she started accompanying them on their fruit runs. She watched as her grandmother perused the aisles, lifting papayas up for appraisal. Was it at the right degree of ripeness? Was it big enough for the grandkids to share? Was it fragrant enough to imply sweetness? Each contender was keenly assessed, making for a highly curated haul. Even after Abbott and the other grandkids grew up and moved out, her grandparents kept the tradition going.
“My grandma would keep buying papayas even though she wasn’t eating it,” Abbott recalls. “We’d come over and pick them up. It was her way of bringing our family together.”
Abbott concedes that she could have just bought a papaya anywhere, but it wasn’t really the fruits themselves that were meaningful. Rather, it was because she received them from somebody she loved.
“It brought joy to her to be blessing us and vice versa,” she says.
Abbott channeled this same approach decades later when she started her own gift-giving service. Abbott founded The Papaya Exchange in 2016 partly as an homage to the whimsy and wonder of thoughtful gifting, a sentiment instilled by the papayas her grandparents so lovingly gifted.
The Papaya Exchange specializes in artfully curated gifts, customizable for all manner of occasions. Take the seasonal holiday box, for example. Comprised of delectable shortbread cookies, Hawai‘i-brewed chai tea, Hawaiian sea salt chocolate, and caramel-coated popcorn, it’s everything you need to imbue a simple family get together with the magical, cozy ambiance of the winter season.
Or the Mother’s Day package: a jute and leather tote bag filled with an acacia wood cheese board, pineapple fruit paste, raw Hawaiian honey, and Maui venison sticks—all the necessities for an instant charcuterie board.
Abbott’s keen curatorial instincts and creative product combinations are guaranteed to elevate any event, from bridesmaid brunches to housewarmings.
“When you receive a gift, it could be the simplest thing, but if it’s presented with a certain ambiance, it just elevates the experience,” she says. “It almost sets the tone for enjoying it more.”
The Papaya Exchange was initially focused on direct-to-consumer packages and small-scale orders. However, Abbott’s expertise quickly caught the attention of local businesses and mainland companies visiting the islands. Soon Abbott and her team were curating gift boxes for clients like ‘Olukai and Four Seasons Resort O‘ahu at Ko Olina, filling hundreds of custom-made orders at a time.
When the Covid-19 pandemic halted corporate gatherings and other events, Abbott returned her focus to fine-tuning the company’s e-commerce experience.
Online, she found an eager audience searching for a way to reconnect with loved ones during the lockdowns. This year’s holiday orders were an outpouring of loving, long-distance sentiments.
“We got those a lot,” she says. “People saying, ‘I’m so bummed you couldn’t come this year, but in the meantime, here’s a little taste of Hawai‘i.’”
Even as her business continues to evolve, what has remained consistent is its focus on local businesses. It’s the underlying ethos running through any commission that The Papaya Exchange receives, whether it’s an intimate get together in celebration of Girls’ Day or a corporate retreat for a mainland company.
“Hawai‘i is really unique with our diversity, of course in the people, but also in the culture and the products,” Abbott says. “Our goal is always to make sure all of our guests are supporting local, small businesses.”
Through the years, she has kept a running spreadsheet of Hawai‘i brands, constantly updating it whenever they release new products or a new local company opens for business.
For Abbott, providing a platform for burgeoning businesses is among the most rewarding aspects of The Papaya Exchange. And her clients are always grateful for the opportunity to support multiple businesses with a single order.
“It’s all about creating access,” she says. “There’s a lot of really neat local products that people overlook. So, it’s kind of a mix of elevating the experience of discovering these new products and creating a sense of not wanting to miss out.”
Despite seeing the business grow these past five years, Abbott remains very involved in the process. She takes the lead in curating products for new orders and has a hand in designing how the gift will be displayed. Much like how her grandma meticulously assessed the papayas she brought home, Abbott puts thought into every aspect of the gift presentation.
“I think about what the occasion is, what the theme will be,” she says. “Even things like, will people pick it up a table or will it already be placed at their seats? Is it going to be shipped to them? All of these different things that affect the overall experience.”
Abbott still puts together the very first box of every order. “And of course, ship days are fun too,” she says. “Just knowing that people are going to be getting something special in the mail. It’s my favorite part.”
This article was sponsored by The Papaya Exchange.