In the Loop


Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate CEO Gunars Valkirs uses the Maui Food Innovation Center kitchen before his Lahaina factory is completed. -- The Maui News / CARLA TRACY photo

Maui will soon have an isle-style Willy Wonkaland, with the largest chocolate factory in Hawaii targeted to open next spring. It will have a tasting bar, housemade ice creams, pastries, gourmet multi-course dinners twice a week and an open-air pavilion with views of the ocean and mountains.

The mastermind and CEO appears to be planets apart from top-hat-wearing, purple-tuxedoed, eccentric Wonka. In fact, Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate CEO Gunars Valkirs is a kind and benevolent soul who wants to give back 100 percent of his net profits to local charities here on island. It’s a bonus that his brainchild will be a fantasyland for chocolate lovers.

The target date to open the completely solar-powered, 9000-square-foot facility near Star Noodle in Lahaina is next April. Until then, Valkirs has orders to fill, and he’s utilizing the certified kitchen at Maui Food Innovation Center currently located in the University of Hawaii Maui College Laulima Building in Kahului.

(The program will move into new digs in July.)

Last week, Valkirs was found stirring aromatic vats of molten chocolate wearing a hairnet and candy-bar-colored shirt, intent on filling an amenity order for a corporate Maui client, an unnamed hotel.

“I’ve been working 10-hour days for nine days straight in here because I need to meet a deadline for a chocolate amenity,” Valkirs says. “My vice president is on his way to Vietnam, and my chocolate maker is in Italy — so I’m here working on the order.”

Would Wonka let the Oompah Loompahs galavant around the globe? NOT!

“Since we don’t have our own facility yet, it’s a lot more labor-intensive to do it here. When you’re a startup, this is what you do. We wouldn’t be able to do this if not for the innovation center. We needed to operate in a facility that is regulated by the FDA. In fact, we were just inspected by them here this week.”

Passing with flying colors, Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolates will first be sold to the resort hotels and then select Maui restaurants.

“Our corporate partner program gives us exposure. By the hotels co-branding with us, they are signing off, putting their name on a quality product.”

When the factory opens next year with its retail store and tasting bar, visitors will be exposed to the chocolate in all of its glory and “hopefully go back to the Mainland with it and also order it online,” Valkir explains.

The company has planted 20 acres in cacao here with plans for 60 acres, and it supplements its ingredients by buying some of the finest cacao beans in the world from a single-source farm in Ecuador.

“Our Vice President Dan O’Doherty does quality control in Ecuador,” says Valkirs, a former biotech chemist. “You can’t make a bad chocolate out of a great bean. The raw material matters. We pay $750 per kilogram, three times the commercial price.”

Maui Ku’ia Estate’s luxuriant dark-milk chocolate is a blend of 60-percent cacao, 20-percent milk powder and 20-percent sugar. Its dark chocolate is made with 65 to 75 percent cacao complemented with sugar. Experiments with lemongrass oil and peppermint are in the works, and the results are off the charts.

The company also has a line on wild Amazonian cacao beans, according to General Manager and Vice President Krishna Narayan.

“We are doing market testing and process testing of our team to get ready for the factory,” says Narayan. “After producing the order we just did, it will allow all of our corporate partners to see the final finished products, and everyone wins.”

Narayan adds that he and Valkirs made extras and are passing them out to corporate partners, beginning this week through January.

When the factory opens, it will feature the ultimate in fine dining at the Ku’ia Estate Chef’s Table.

“This twice-weekly culinary experience will seat 23 at our beautifully-crafted communal dining table, where guests can interact with Executive Chef Riko Bartolome as he serves a seven-course tasting menu, paired perfectly with beverage selections chosen by the Ku’ia team,” says Valkir’s publicist Charlene Ka’uhane of Ka’uhane Inc.

“Gunar’s social mission is so important because all of his proceeds will go to nonprofits here,” says Chris Speere, an associate professor as well as coordinator of the Maui Food Innovation Center.”

“He’s one of those guys who is deeply involved He’s out in the field. He’s in the kitchen. He does all of the work, yet he has the money and he can pay people to do it.”

Chocolate lovers may join the Maui Ku’ia Club wait list or sign up for the blog to see the progress of the factory. Maui Ku’ia Estate Club will allow members to pre-order chocolate while the factory is being constructed, have first access to rare limited edition grown as well as made in Maui chocolate, and be able to exclusively try chocolate made from other rare cacao farms around the world.

• For more details: Visit www.mauichocolate.com.


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