Sponsored: The Story Behind Hawai‘i’s Chocolate-Dipped Ika
How Big Island Candies cracked into local flavors to transform from a Hilo business to a Hawai‘i favorite.
A worker creates chocolate waves on the classic big island candies biscotti.
Photos: Courtesy of Big Island Candies
Big Island Candies CEO and founder Allan Ikawa.
When Liberty House decided to launch a chocolate week promotion at Liberty House Ala Moana in the mid-’80s, Allan Ikawa headed to a crack seed store.
The CEO and founder of Big Island Candies had just one thing in mind: to find something dry to pair with his high-quality chocolate.
“Wet form is the worst thing for chocolate,” Ikawa said. “I saw ika, li hing mui, fortune cookies. I got them everything, dipped them in chocolate and sent it.”
“I didn’t know what to call it. So we called it Hawaiian Da Kines.”
Twenty five years later, Ikawa’s Hawaiian Da Kines line is a staple of Big Island Candies’ award-winning lineup of confections, chocolates and treats.
It’s this in-the-moment thinking that has turned Big Island Candies from a three-employee business in 1977 to a Hilo institution with 100 full-time employees most of the year and 300 employees during the busy holiday season. No one exemplifies this more than Ikawa.
Ikawa graduated from Hilo High and went on to study at Hilo College and then, as he says, he barely got his diploma from Mānoa after several years of partying.
“My brother couldn’t believe how I was able to graduate. But I developed my social skills,” Ikawa said.
His first job after college, was picking just enough maile to make enough money for beer and food. His father then got him into banking, but soon, Ikawa wanted out. He began making chocolate-covered macadamia nuts for a Swiss company and when it went bankrupt, he and a few other guys launched the business that became Big Island Candies in 1977.
By the mid-’80s, after several rounds of near bankruptcy, a chance encounter with some golf families and Ikawa’s chocolates turned Big Island Candies a favorite Hilo omiyage for locals and visitors alike.
the creation of Big Island Candies chocolate mac nuts and diagonally dipped macadamia nut shortbreads.
New flavors and new ideas are the secret behind Big Island Candies continued success. The company tries to launch a new item with every one of its three catalogs a year, an ambitious task even with two full-time food scientists on staff.
“If you’re flatline or just doing day-to-day, there’s no passion or excitement,” Ikawa said. “Things need to be exciting, so we try to change how we think and create.”
The result? Right now, 65 items are available on bigislandcandies.com. Along with the chocolate-dipped ika, you can pick up more creations from Ikawa’s decades-old run to the crack seed store including iso peanuts, arare and li hing mui dipped in chocolate.
“Chocolate Ika is by far the best-selling item in our Da-Kines line,” said Sherrie Holi, chief operating officer. “My personal favorite is the chocolate-dipped mochi balls and chocolate-dipped li hing mui seed. The balance of salt and sweet is just perfect. I always look for the mochi balls with the seaweed on it and that one is my favorite in the bag!”
Next to the bite-size guava macadamia nut and Kona coffee cookies you’ll find brownies, including the newest, a milk chocolate-covered caramel brownie with Hawaiian sea salt. Fans can still find the signature diagonal-chocolate-dipped shortbread cookies but can now add a box of Mika Ume Shiso or Macadamia blossom honey chocolates to the order. Or top it off with a chocolate bar packed with peanuts and corn chips.
All of it comes in chic packaging, also created by Big Island Candies’ own team of four in-house designers. Every season, they are responsible for a new line of the company’s sturdy, sophisticated printed boxes, tins and rich ribbons. One of the most popular are the boxes designed in collaboration with another Hilo notable, Sig Zane.
In 2013, Big Island Candies finally opened its first permanent store on O‘ahu, in Ala Moana Center. But the company, at its heart, will always be a Hilo store.
“If you look back at the last 30 years in Hilo, a lot of the old mom and pops are all gone,” Ikawa said. “It’s only a couple of guys in Hilo that were able to create this business model and been able to take it globally.”
“It’s kind of hats off to everybody. Some days you step back and go ‘Oh wow, it’s pretty big.’ I think about it for about 15 minutes, then back to work.”
Big Island Candies’ flagship store is located at 585 Hīnano St., Hilo. You can also visit itheir gift shop at Ala Moana Center. Call 1-800-935-5510 within the US and Canada or 1-808-935-8890 outside the U.S. Or shop 24 hours a day at bigislandcandies.com.