Spread across twenty acres on the west side of the Valley Isle, 8,000 cacao trees provide the raw ingredient for Maui Ku‘ia Estate’s locally grown chocolate, an assortment of smooth, complex flavors infused with such tastes of Hawai‘i as lemongrass and mango. They are the heart of a company’s six years’ growth to include a tasting room, mail-order business, storefront, charitable outreach, and chocolate factory—the largest in Hawai‘i.
Founder Gunars Valkirs didn’t think he’d work again when he retired to Maui after selling his medical diagnostics company in San Diego. When he and his wife JoRene arrived in Hawai‘i, they established the Makana Aloha Foundation to support nonprofit organizations improving Maui’s community in public education, the arts, healthcare, animal welfare and environmental conservation.
UH Maui College’s Food Innovation Center is one beneficiary of the foundation’s largesse. Coordinator Chris Speere says,
“The Makana Aloha Foundation is a living example of the power of partnership. Its steady guidance and support add immeasurable value to MFIC’s growth and our students’ success.”
Valkirs says, “I was impressed with MFIC’s program, which is great for Maui’s community, and wanted to be involved in some way.” In addition to purchasing much of MFIC’s new equipment, the foundation has awarded two scholarships per year for ten years to Maui culinary students.
Service in a pandemic
In its early research and development phase, Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate used the Food Innovation Center’s facilities for making chocolate until its own factory was ready. “When our arrangement with an O‘ahu company ended, we needed to move our research and development equipment,” says Valkirs. “We made our chocolate in MFIC’s commercial kitchen and got feedback from some local chefs, to whom we sold the chocolate, getting them used to working with our product.”
MFIC also assisted with research on environment-friendly packaging.
Then in October 2019, fully operational in its new factory and committing 100 percent of its net profits to Maui charities, Valkirs brought his first harvest, just in time for a pandemic. He says,
“We started making chocolate, launched our wholesale operation online, missed the Christmas season so we could build inventory, and opened our retail store in 2020, two days before the COVID-19 shutdown. In February we had $80,000 in sales, mostly to restaurants and hotels. Two weeks later, we were down to zero.”
The lockdown meant new strategies for raising support of Maui organizations, beginning with gifts of chocolate to every employee at hospitals, the fire department, the police department, and emergency medical services. Next were chocolate tastings on the factory’s open-air pavilion, with all admission fees going to the Maui Food Bank.
Now, through the Chocolate Laulima program, 30 Maui nonprofits sell chocolate right from the Maui Ku‘ia Estate website, among them Habitat for Humanity, Assistance Dogs of Hawaii, and Imua Family Services. Valkirs says, “40 percent of the retail price goes right to the organization. We just send them a check at the end of each month. It’s a way for them to replace a lot of revenue they might have gotten from in-person events.”
Charity and chocolate
Valkirs explains, “This is another way of giving to these organizations while building our customer base. The nonprofits bring people to our website. The nonprofits get 40 percent of the retail price while the rest helps us achieve profitability so that we can give the net profits back to the nonprofit community.”
Valkirs also offers virtual tastings via Zoom, sending participants samples ahead of time. “It’s very effective,” he says. “I tell people your bodies are perfectly engineered to enjoy chocolate. Cocoa butter melts at about 10 degrees below your body temperatures, a perfect rate to release the flavors in your mouth. The flavor molecules are released from the solids when it melts, getting trapped on your tongue, so you’re still tasting it for a long time. The finish is hugely important because that’s what people remember.”
What people remember is a changing perception of chocolate, and making an impact on Maui.
“We make a world-class chocolate,” says Valkirs. “I don’t think there’s any question about it.”
“Gunars is a true visionary, open to risk-taking, ready to pivot when needed, and always striving toward successful outcomes,” says Speere. “His generosity with time and resources is reflected in many people and community organizations on Maui touched by his philanthropy. I feel honored to have him as a mentor and friend.”