Story by Becky Speere | Photography by Bryan Berkowitz
Circular saws and metal-on-metal drills screech and whine as I follow retired biophysicist Dr. Gunars Valkirs through the labyrinth that is Maui Ku‘ia Estate Chocolate (MKEC). Over the whir in the anticipated, state-of- the-art, chocolate manufacturing plant, he bellows, “this is going to be the loading and offloading dock for our cacao beans, supplies, and finished chocolate. this is where it all begins!”
Smiling broadly, Gunars points to lines on the freshly poured concrete floors as we traverse the dusty dry-walled rooms and hallways. I realize he’s showing me a secret road map: future locations for the roaster, winnower, ball mills, conchers, tempering units, molding machine, and more.
Two years after the factory’s groundbreaking, Gunars has invited a group of us from Maui Nō Ka ‘Oi to tour the first off- grid facility of its kind in Hawai‘i. Greeting us warmly, he shares that the company’s name derives from the ahupua‘a (traditional Hawaiian land division) where the farm is located. “Ku‘ia means ‘spearhead,’” he says, “because the land was once a place for battle practice.” Today, its new caretakers are spearheading innovative ways to benefit community. Gunars and his wife, JoRene, are major philanthropists, along with their daughter, Jami Burks, who manages their Makana Aloha Foundation. The business model—indeed, the sole reason for MKEC—is to donate 100 percent of its net profits to charities throughout Maui. Projected at what could be about $1 million a year in perpetuity, the business is committed to producing some of the world’s best chocolate—right here on Maui.
The Valkirs like to refer to the mission statement as their “chocolate kuleana” (responsibility). He elaborates, “Our focus is producing the highest quality chocolate using cacao grown on Maui, and sustainably sourcing cacao from Ecuador and the Amazon.” At the factory, the public is invited to purchase gourmet chocolates in beautifully presented gift boxes. On a grander scale, Gunars and Krishna have created a corporate partnership program through which businesses purchasing Ku‘ia Estate chocolate are invited to designate a local charity of their choice to receive the net profits of their purchase. A few of the businesses on board include Andaz Maui, Nā Hoaloha ‘Ekolu, Hyatt Regency Maui, and Taverna. A sweet deal for Maui.
Before heading back to work, Gunars places us in the capable hands of our guide, Krishna Narayan, Ku‘ia’s vice president and general manager. Our first stop is the parking lot, where Krishna draws our attention to rows of solar panels overhead. He says, “We are the largest off-grid chocolate-manufacturing plant in Hawaii. What you see above us are 847 photovoltaic panels, which produce 300 kilowatts of power and provide shade for guest parking.”
As we enter the building, Krishna gets to the specifics of the Maui Ku‘ia Estate Cacao Farm. “Currently, we have 7,000 trees planted on twenty acres. Once the farm is complete, we’ll have fifty acres planted with 20,000 trees. So far, we’ve produced 4,000 pounds of dried cacao, which we will manufacture into dark chocolate and dark milk chocolate. We’ll be in full harvest and production within five years—if everything goes as planned.”
The disclaimer is understandable. In August 2018, mere months after their first cacao harvest, a wildfire tore through the Lahaina foothills, propelled by sustained winds of seventy miles per hour. At the time, Gunars told me he believed that the farm project he’d just brought to fruition would be a total loss. Miraculously, the trees were spared, thanks to the densely planted windbreak encircling his plantation. “All the cacao trees were stripped of their leaves by the high winds. Dan O’Doherty said we had to get the water lines reinstalled as soon as possible. We had no more than two weeks to restore our water if we wanted to save the trees, so we worked day and night.” Salvaging what they could—despite the loss of over $100,000 in farm equipment—Gunars and his team moved on.
The water was restored and the trees slowly came back to life, bearing new green leaves—a joyous sight for the entire crew.
Krishna leads us through the facility, at each stop revealing the next step in what will be an almost entirely automated process of chocolate production. We circle back to the entrance, where counters of granite and salvaged monkeypod wood are being installed. Deep chocolate and gold-streaked caramel colors of the variegated hardwood add unmistakable warmth to the room. The space will accommodate tastings, including chocolate milk shakes and baked goods, and room for retail sales. TV monitors installed for visitors follow cacao farm employees in the field: stages of harvest, fermentation and drying are explained, while a large viewing window allows guests to see the production process.
Our tour concludes on the second floor, an open-air setting with views extending across the channel waters to Lāna‘i island. Smiling with pride, Krishna points east to a plot of lush green on West Maui’s slope surrounded by dry brush. “That is our cacao farm,” he says, then introduces Caitlyn Fisler, the company’s sales and marketing director.
“Welcome to The Pavilion, Ku‘ia’s full-service, special- events space,” Fisler tells us. “I’m in charge of coordinating events such as weddings and birthday celebrations. We began booking events for 2020 last year,” she says. “Soon to come will be a Chef’s Table in our downstairs salon, where twenty- three guests will enjoy fine food and, of course, chocolates.” A chef’s table in a chocolate factory? I know where we’ll want to hold our next employee party.
As we depart, gift boxes of chocolate in hand, I recall a favorite quote of Gunars, by baseball legend Jackie Robinson: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” It’s a saying the Valkirs live by, and how sweet it is for all of us that they do.
Visit Maui Estate Ku’ia Estate Chocolate’s retail store at 78 Ulupono Street, Lahaina, or go to MauiChocolate.com.