River of Life Mission’s Chocolate Factory Whips Up Delectable Sweets

River of Life Mission’s thriving chocolate business shows that chocolate can be less about indulgence and more about service.
Head chocolatier Ana Sagadraca shows off fresh chocolate-covered pretzels.
Photo: Lorin Eleni Gill

While passing through Chinatown, you may have noticed a line of people waiting along Pauahi Street for a hot meal, but chances are you didn’t know about the chocolate confectionery upstairs.

Chocolate on a Mission trains and employs men and women from the River of Life Mission’s recovery and reintegration programs in the delectable art of sweet treats.

The faith-based nonprofit provides 17,000 meals to homeless and low-income families each month. The chocolate factory, three floors up, provides job-training and supports the mission’s residential programs which offer free recovery treatment for former substance abusers.

“It was our goal to have a one-stop-shop kind of deal,” Chocolate on a Mission director Davi Teves says. “We take them off prison and streets and house them through 18-month programs that train them at different parts of the mission or at the chocolate factory. There are lots of different areas for them to learn skills.”

While creating chocolates, the mission is also re-creating lives.

“I was homeless with a drug addiction, and I was broken and lost,” Candace Kumalaa says. She came to work at Chocolate on a Mission after a stint in prison. She was once missing most of her teeth, but her serious expression now turns into a beautiful wide and toothy grin. “In just two days, I make my first year being clean and sober!” she says, clapping with excitement. Equipped with the skills she has learned at the chocolate factory, Kumalaa plans on attending college to study business administration.

Other graduates of the mission’s programs have gone on to work at airports or cafeterias, or maintain 4.0 averages at school.

During its first year of business in 2011, the chocolate venture won the United Cerebral Palsy Association’s Dessert Fantasy competition. Local customers include R. Field Wine Co., Foodland, Roy’s Restaurants, Taormina Restaurant, the Halekulani, Royal Hawaiian and Turtle Bay Resorts as well as neighbor-island hotel boutiques.

“Foodland actually came to us and knocked on our door,” Teves says. “They found out what we were doing and asked us to partner with them.”

Chocolate on a Mission has even picked up clients in Japan and China.

Customers can fundraise or customize treats for any occasion, whether it’s personalizing chocolate fortune cookies or designing a new chocolate, such as the recent order for Taormina Restaurant: dark chocolate macadamia nuts, each sprinkled with eight grains of red Molokai sea salt to represent each island.

Photos: Odeelo Dayondon

Candies are hand-dipped in a secret blend of milk and dark chocolate. Try the chocolate-covered Oreos drizzled with white mint chocolate, the dehydrated Maui-grown “sugar pine” pineapple, or the crunchy-salty-sweet combo in the chocolate norimaki arare.

Head chocolatier Ana Sagadraca, a professional with 20 years of experience, volunteered with River of Life for more than a decade before being approached to start the shop.

“They called me and asked, ‘What do you think?’” Sagadraca says. “I said, ‘A chocolate factory at the mission?’ Kind of like, ‘What? Hello?’ But everyone wants to eat chocolate, from young kids to adults, so I said, ‘OK! I’ll be there!’”

Sagadraca currently trains five apprentices, who attend recovery classes when they’re not busy in the kitchen. One apprentice learned the whole business in four years and is now trusted to run the factory when Sagadraca takes a day off.

“The more you know them, the more you love them,” she says. “They may not have money, but they have hearts.”

Their latest venture is with Tutti Frutti Yogurt, creating 12 flavors of yogurt-covered macadamia nuts. It’s an exciting next step for the shop and its enthusiastic employees.

“If not for this place I know I’d be in jail today,” Kumalaa says. “They loved me until I learned to love myself.”

It’s no wonder. After all, chocolate is the universal food of love.

River of Life Mission, 101 N. Pauahi St., Honolulu, HI 96817, (808) 524-7770

Order online at chocolateonamission.com. Volunteer or donate to the ROLM at riveroflifemission.com


Food on a Mission

Three more Honolulu eateries with an extra scoop of good.


Breakfast, lunch and justice on the menu! Seed employs survivors of human trafficking, domestic abuse, homelessness and other challenges. And their dishes are made with locally sourced ingredients. Our favorites are the baked chicken katsu and SEED loco moco, with a house-made turkey patty smothered in savory mushroom sauce, topped with a Peterson's Upland Farm egg.
1137 11th Avenue, 732-1137

Family Roots Café

This hidden gem is tucked away in Kalihi.  A project of Kokua Kalihi Valley, the café goes back to its Hawaiian roots and serves produce grown at Hooulu Aina and across Kalihi Valley. Roots is funded by a Kresge Foundation grant that supports projects that integrate community health and prevention with primary care. Get the most bang for your buck with their giant acai bowls—stacked high with fresh berries, banana, and granola for just $6.75.
2153 N. King St., 848-2771; weekdays, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Closed weekends.

The Pig and the Lady

Opened just last year as a brick-and-mortar restaurant after its success at farmers’ markets, the Pig and the Lady has become popular in Chinatown.  It partners with the Pacific Gateway Center, employing immigrants, refugees and low-income residents as a part of PGC’s work training program. And it's an especially appropriate partnership, given that owner Loan Le herself is a refugee from Vietnam.
83 N. King St., 585-8255