Sweet success

Ever since they came here to get married 10 years ago, Larry Lutz and Christine Vestfals dreamed of moving to Maui. Little did they know that their burning desire would lead them to start a business that’s ice cold – literally.

Lutz and Vestfals are the creators of Shaka Pops, a line of gourmet ice pops featuring island ingredients and flavors. The couple sold their first pop at Whale Day 2012, and the business has been taking off ever since, they said.

“I just can’t believe we’re actually doing it, because we dreamed of doing it for so many years,” Vestfals said.

Feeling burned out in their corporate jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area, the pair knew they wanted to start their own small business on Maui but couldn’t decide what they should do. With Vestfals’ background in the wine industry, they considered opening a wine bar – then decided dealing with liquor regulations would be too difficult. They were intrigued when they learned Maui hadn’t yet caught up with the gourmet cupcake trend, but Vestfals, although an avid cook, wasn’t a baker. Then she read an article about the booming business of artisan ice pops.

“It said popsicles are the new cupcakes,” she said. “I thought, ‘That’s something I can do.’ “

Vestfals tested recipes on friends and family while Lutz, then completing his master’s in business administration, came up with a business plan. Less than a year later, they made the move and launched Shaka Pops with six flavors: Lava Flow, Coconut Lime, Passion Orange Guava, Maui Mojito, Strawberry Limeade and Kona Coffee. The lineup took advantage of Maui’s year-round “bounty,” using fresh, seasonal, local fruits, herbs and vegetables, and all-natural ingredients.

Today, the menu has expanded to more than a dozen regular offerings, plus limited-edition, seasonal flavors like Tangerine Cream, Avocado Lime, Papaya Passion and Blueberry Lemon Buttermilk, which uses blueberries grown in Kula.

“I have one lady who’s been asking for Grapefruit Rosemary for almost a year, but grapefruit isn’t in season yet,” Vestfals said. “It’s a flavor she tried and fell in love with.”

Vestfals said she’s happy to take requests, and some of her favorite new flavors have come from suggestions – like Coco Hana Banana, a mix of local apple bananas, coconut milk and Waialua chocolate from Oahu.

“It’s a healthy take on a fudgesicle,” she said.

The combo was suggested by the couple who runs Shaka Pops’ Hana stand, and has since become one of the most popular flavors in the lineup.

But not every great new idea pans out. Vestfals had high hopes for a pineapple/li hing mui mix, but it never seemed to catch on. And a spicy Mayan Chocolate flavor she created (using Waialua chocolate, cayenne and cinnamon) tickled her taste buds but failed to draw customers.

“I thought it was fantastic, but people just couldn’t wrap their heads around it,” she said.

The brand’s most popular flavor remains Lava Flow – a mix Vestfals originally planned to appeal to a tourist crowd but which won over residents as well.

In addition to their stand in Hana (across from Hasegawa General Store as weather permits), Shaka Pops has a mobile location that rotates between the Maui Swap Meet, Lahaina Civic Center Sunday craft fairs, Makawao Third Friday and Kihei Fourth Friday town parties, and other festivals and events.

The pops also are available at retail stores including Whole Foods, Foodland and Foodland Farms in Kihei and Lahaina, Times Supermarkets in Kihei and Honokowai, Down to Earth, Aina Gourmet, Mana Foods and other locations.

Vestfals said she’s been surprised by how quickly the gourmet pops have caught on.

“Our production has tripled from what we were making at this time last year,” she said in an email, adding that wholesale accounts have grown from six to 16 over the same period. “We just can’t get more freezers to the island quickly enough.”

The couple also make a point of giving back to the community, including donating 25 cents to the Maui Food Bank for every “flavor of the week” pop they sell, and supporting other nonprofits, including the Maui Humane Society and Kihei Little League. The company is also a sponsor of the Maui Marathon and will be handing out free pops to the estimated 2,500 runners who finish the course.

Both Lutz and Vestfals said the most rewarding part of their experience has been the thanks and positive feedback they get from customers who enjoy their fresh, local treats.

“We’re not going to get rich doing this, but that wasn’t our objective,” Vestfals said. “We wanted to move to Maui and do something fulfilling. We’re 10 times happier than what we were doing in corporate America.”

For a current list of Shaka Pops locations and flavors, see the company’s website, www.shakapopsmaui.com, or follow it on Facebook (shakapopsmaui) or Twitter (@shakapopsmaui).

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at neighbors.maui@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.