Hawai‘i Chocolate: The Everything Guide to Local Chocolate

We take you through the world of Hawai‘i Chocolate from bean to bar, and beyond.


Get these tasty treats! at Honolulu Chocolate Co. and Choco Le‘a. Illustrations: Kelsey Ige



There’s new life at Dole Cannery. The ghosts of pineapples past are being swept out in anticipation of chocolate.


For here, Dole has just begun construction of a 2,000-square-foot factory to process its Waialua-grown cacao (and coffee). It’s as if, in this little corner of ‘Iwilei, wedged between Costco and Lowe’s, an abbreviated story of Hawai‘i agriculture unfolds.


“We growers in Hawai‘i, the ones who grew pineapple and sugar, were our own worst enemy,” says Mike Conway, Dole’s manager of agricultural operations on O‘ahu. “Over 100 years, we developed the best varieties, we developed the mechanization, we developed the markets, we developed everything that sugar always wanted. We basically did the same thing in pineapple. Then what did we do? We sold ourselves overseas to other operations. We basically gave away the technology to different countries, and now they’re eating our lunch.”


Daniel O’Doherty, cacao specialist at UH Mānoa. Photo: Steve Czerniak



Ever since the fall of sugar and pineapple in the Islands, farmers in Hawai‘i have been looking for The Next Big Thing. Something bigger than tea or vanilla or even coffee, and something sexier (and less controversial) than seed corn. Could cacao be it?


A number of farmers are betting on it. In the past five years, chocolate has been making a comeback in Hawai‘i, with the pioneers doubling down on their investments (such as Dole’s Waialua Estate), bean-to-bar makers increasing their production (Mānoa Chocolate) and wealthy entrepreneurs trying their hand (Maui Ku‘ia Estate). Even large Mainland investors—interested in sustainable agriculture and a return on their investments—are scoping out large tracts of land for cacao production. They are all buoyed by a growing interest in high-quality chocolate; there are now about 60 craft chocolate makers, a tenfold increase in the past decade.


If it all works out, it would be a case of delicious retribution. Says Conway, “In cacao, all the good stuff was developed outside of Hawai‘i, so we’re sort of taking it back.”


Hawai‘i’s Chocolate Past

Cacao was introduced to the Islands as early as 1850, but it wasn’t until 1986 that Jim Walsh, in partnership with Hershey’s and other investors, set out to grow and make chocolate commercially in Hawai‘i. Walsh and Conway, who was hired as “the ag guy to make it all work,” traveled all over the world to collect the finest cacao varieties.


But the venture fell apart. Conway says it was a “sales and marketing fantasy world. I hadn’t even put any plants in the ground and the candy boxes were designed.” (Not to mention that Walsh turned out to be something of a fraud. He was later found passing off imported chocolate as Hawai‘i grown, and has been sued by Hershey’s and, most recently, Deepak Chopra, whom he partnered with on a candy bar “powered by Intentional Chocolate,” embedded with meditations as “the result of breakthrough technology,” according to the Intentional Chocolate website.) The cacao orchards were abandoned.


In 1997, a retired couple from North Carolina, Bob and Pam Cooper, picked up where Walsh and Hershey’s left off. They named their business, appropriately, Original Hawaiian Chocolate, and were the first to grow and process chocolate in the Islands. At the same time, Dole hired Conway to plant cacao in its Waialua fields; he culled some of the trees from what had become a “chop suey” of cacao, the original plantings from Walsh’s venture, which had become all mixed up and unidentifiable.  But, from that chaos, Dole began producing “chocolate [that] is some of the best in the world,” says Gary Guittard, president of Guittard Chocolate Co. Once Dole had proven that Hawai‘i could grow terrific chocolate, a handful of the cacao-obsessed followed.


In the last five years, Hawai‘i cacao acreage has grown from about 25 acres to around 100. This year, Dole begins expanding their 25 acres to 180, and, by the end of the year, it will return to Dole Cannery on ‘Iwilei, this time with a chocolate and coffee factory.


Why Hawai‘i?

Craft chocolate makers are seeking a better way to produce chocolate. Globally, chocolate’s story has been bitter, a tale of child labor and deforestation, of candy doctored to hide flaws in cacao. That’s where Hawai‘i comes in. As the only state in the United States in the right latitude, climatewise, to grow cacao commercially (Madre Chocolate co-founder Nat Bletter refers to Hawai‘i as the North Pole of chocolate), it is more accessible than the remote locations where most cacao is grown. Hawai‘i offers the promise of a shorter supply chain, more transparency, and the opportunity to tell a better story, one of craftsmanship and flavor, both on the farm and in the factory.


But what does the industry need to grow? Will it continue to be a novelty crop or will it develop into a significant economic force? We asked some of the local experts in chocolate:


Seneca Klassen

Lonohana Chocolate, farmer and chocolate maker 

We need some larger force—and by that I mean capital, or entities—to come in and start larger establishments—multiple hundred acres. That would deliver some consistency and quality. It’s really hard for small farms (under 5 acres) to do cacao at any level, and it’s incredibly hard for them to do it well. And that’s almost everything we have. I think if we continue in the where-we-are mode, we’ll end up with a collection of family businesses that might continue making perfectly nice products. But they’re not ever going to be any more high profile than that. I’m not sure that’s enough to give Hawai‘i a reputation or create a legitimate industry around chocolate here.”


H.C. “Skip” Bittenbender

cacao specialist at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

“The future is good for several reasons. The most important reason: because it’s Hawai‘i. We have a built-in market for everything we produce that doesn’t taste weird. What’s more mainstream than chocolate? We have 8 million tourists who need to take something back. We’re already considering getting the [Hawai‘i] Department of Agriculture to formalize rules for the proper labeling of chocolate for Hawaiian-grown cacao. Any chocolate should have at least 51 percent Hawai‘i-grown content before it can have the Hawai‘i name. We’re trying to deal with the whole Kona coffee blend humbug up front. Do it now rather than have people grumbling for 30 years.”


Daniel O’Doherty

cacao specialist at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

“Hawaiian cacao is going to have to be specialty. It’s going to have to have quality. Really good Hawaiian cacao and chocolate can really be at the top. There are a handful of ways [for cacao-growing to be profitable]. One is to be vertically integrated, like Gunars [Valkirs of Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao] or Dole. The second one is to already have an agricultural operation, so you have the infrastructure, experience and equipment. And the third is agritourism, like Steelgrass [Farm on Kaua‘i], where you grow a small amount of cacao and contract Dylan [Butterbaugh of Mānoa Chocolate] to manufacture your chocolate for you.”


Tom Menezes

founder of Hawaiian Crown (which grows pineapples, bananas and cacao)

“I’ve been farming for 40 years. Every time I get a commodity that does really well, somebody always wants to take it to a foreign country and do it cheaper. I’m always looking for the next crop that maybe wouldn’t be so pocket market. In ag economics, they call Hawai‘i a pocket market. You can only produce 90 percent of the supply, otherwise you start overproducing. You end up overproducing and dropping the price and it’s not economic anymore.


“The beauty of the cacao industry is that we’ll never oversupply the market. There’s way more demand than we could ever supply.”


Mike Conway

manager of agricultural operations for Dole on O‘ahu

“The demand for higher-percent cacao has essentially created a shortage of beans worldwide. It’s forced the fine-chocolate industry to step up. There’s this demand for really good, high-quality boutique chocolate, and the quality of the chocolate is really only as good as the beans. Hawai‘i enters the picture [as a place] where good-quality beans and chocolate can be sourced. We’re sort of steering blindly on stuff, but it’s true pioneer work.”




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