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Melts in your mouth, gives others a hand

Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate seeing its best harvest yet

Volunteers separate seeds and pulp from halved cacao pods during Friday’s harvest at Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate’s Lahaina farm. The workers are sitting next to next to piles of just-harvested pods, as well as a growing stack of empties. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

There is an old witticism in agriculture that starts with a question and ends with a pithy observation on how difficult it is to turn a profit.

How do you become a millionaire farmer? Start with $10 million and keep farming.

Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate founder and CEO Gunars Valkirs faced his $10 million question in 2016. Realizing his Lahaina cacao farm was looking at a decade of losses before it would even approach a yearly break-even, it was time to decide whether to pull the plug or go all in by building a factory to process the beans that would be produced. He and his wife, JoRene, not only elected to build the $10 million factory, they doubled down on their commitment to the community.

“My wife and I decided we would give back 100 percent of net profit,” Valkirs said while seated in the factory’s top-floor, open-air pavilion last week. “If not, shut down the farm and go have fun. If I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to something, there has to be a why. Why am I doing this?”

At this point, it is helpful to explain that this particular farmer started out with a sum far north of a million dollars. With a Ph.D. in biophysics, Valkirs helped found a company, Biosite Inc., that makes blood-based antigen tests. Following a hostile takeover in 2007, Biosite sold for $1.7 billion.

A tray of warm chocolate moves on a conveyor belt at Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate’s state-of-the-art factory on Ulupono Street in Lahaina last week. After being vibrated into a uniform flatness, cooled to complete tempering and inspected at the end of the line, the squares are fed into a lightning-fast wrapping machine. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The Valkirs retired to Kapalua, where they bought a home on 3 acres. Gunars Valkirs said he was spending most of his time golfing and kitesurfing when University of Hawaii at Manoa graduate student Dan O’Doherty showed up in 2010. O’Doherty was conducting a field trial for grafted cacao trees at locations around the state and the Valkirs had volunteered to provide a spot to plant 40 trees.

O’Doherty is now Ku’ia vice president of factory and farm operations. He also owns his own company, Cacao Services. As a consultant, importer and facilitator, he helps cacao farmers around the world with research and development. O’Doherty said his work usually has him traveling six months a year.

He recalled the moment when Valkirs decided to try chocolate as a business. It was during a visit to Kapalua, and O’Doherty was describing all the nuances and varieties of cacao, how each had different notes like wines.

“He looked at me and said, ‘that’s what I want to do.’ “

In 2013, Valkirs leased 50 acres of former sugar cane land from Kamehameha Schools on the slopes above Lahaina. The first thing they did was plant a windbreak hedge and shade trees to engineer an environment conducive to cacao. The first planting was in 2015. This year, with about 5,500 productive trees in the ground, Ku’ia is in the midst of its biggest harvest yet.

Farm Manager David McPherson harvests cacao pods Friday morning. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

O’Doherty said he expects the spring crop to yield about 42,000 pounds of cacao, roughly 75 percent of the 56,000 pounds the farm is projected to produce for the year. He said the trees are about three or four years from maturity, when yields will be higher.

Along with cacao from the Lahaina farm, the factory also uses beans imported from the Amazon basin and Ecuador. Each has its own taste profile, with Maui’s beans producing a chocolate that many claim tastes like apple bananas. The beans are not blended. Ku’ia currently produces 21 different flavors of specialty artisan chocolates at a rate of 30,000 pounds a year.

That is far below what the factory is designed to handle. Saying he wanted to avoid expansion pains like those his first business had to deal with, Valkirs designed a facility Ku’ia can grow into. Located across from the former Star Noodle location on Ulupono Street, the 10,000-square foot, two-story facility features state-of-the-art chocolate making and packaging equipment manufactured in Italy. Its 9,000 solar panels and Tesla storage batteries provide all the electricity it needs, allowing it to be totally off the grid.

“I wanted to start at scale to be able to meet the goals of my vision,” said Valkirs.

He said the factory is currently operating at around 15 to 20 percent of capacity with two staggered shifts. It is designed to produce 176,000 pounds of chocolate per year.

Maui Ku’ia Estate Chocolate founder and CEO Gunars Valkirs (right) works on the chocolate factory’s production line last week along with volunteer Arvinder Surdhar. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

There have been setbacks, including a fire windstorm spawned by Hurricane Lane in 2018 that “shredded” the trees and singed the windbreaks. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of Maui’s tourist-based economy in 2020. If COVID had not struck, Valkirs estimates the company would be making 88,000 pounds a year.

“I’m confident that we would have been to that point. We could be at that point by the end of the year,” he said. “We’re selling at the rate we are making it right now. We need to start thinking about upping our production.”

It’s a fortuitous time for the farm to have its best harvest to date. A crew of staffers and volunteers worked through the day on Friday harvesting the colorful pods and splitting them open to collect their fruity centers of seeds and pulp.

Sprouting from tree trunks and limbs, the pods resemble a cross between papayas and wrinkled squash. After being removed from the pods, the seeds and pulp are placed in large wooden boxes and allowed to ferment for about a week. Once fermented and dried, the beans are a stable product that can be stored until use.

At the factory last week, while some workers were staffing the production line, others were tying ribbons around gift packages that were to be donated to a Maui nonprofit for a fundraiser.

Ku’ia Vice President of Factory and Farm Operations Dan O’Doherty tosses a portion of cracked-open cacao pod into a bin Friday. The interior of each pod holds a wad of seeds encased in fruity, white pulp. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Ku’ia Vice President and General Manager Lisa Foth said the company has nearly 100 different configurations of chocolate gifts, including lei, towers, bars and gift boxes. She said when sales stopped due to COVID, they began gifting their products to health care workers, firefighters, police officers and others.

“The mission of our company is to give back to the community,” Foth said Thursday. “We started giving away chocolate. We wanted people to know we mean what we say. Our sole purpose is to make amazing chocolate and give back to those who serve Hawaii. Maui is definitely our focus.

“We had to figure out how to put our money where our mouth is. We started our Chocolate Laulima program.”

The 501(c)(3) organization provides groups and nonprofits with products they can promote. The more chocolate they sell, the more money they earn. The top-floor pavilion was envisioned as a busy events center, but since COVID, has evolved into a tasting room where guests can either reserve a formal tasting or buy a plate of chocolates and explore the tastes on their own.

The factory, retail store and cafe are open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Reservations are required for the formal tastings, which are held Monday through Saturday. All proceeds from Saturday tastings go to the Maui Food Bank.

Fulfillment Team member Danielle Sulliban adds ribbons to gift chocolates last week. — The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Farm tours and tastings are available Monday through Friday. To reserve a tour, buy chocolates or learn more about the company, visit the Ku’ia website, mauichocolate.com.

Foth invites people to stop by the factory.

“No matter what your interest is, whether you have a philanthropic heart, you want to have some exquisite chocolate or you want to see how a chocolate factory works, we’re here to answer your questions and help any way we can,” she said.

* Matthew Thayer can be reached at mthayer@mauinews.com.

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