“Around chocolate, everybody has a smile.”
That’s according to Farsheed Bonakdar, who with Barbara Cappelli owns The Cocoa Outlet in Kealakekua. And he should know. Farsheed and Barbara have been in business for 18 years as wholesale distributors of chocolate and pastry ingredients. While there are four other major companies in the state selling wholesale food products, including chocolate and pastry ingredients, to hotels, restaurants, and candy makers, The Cocoa Outlet is the only vendor dealing exclusively in these lines.
You can buy everything from 26-pound units of dark bulk chocolate specifically created for coating chocolate bonbons to sugar dough paste orchids for decorating your wedding cake. The Cocoa Outlet warehouse is truly a Willy Wonka dreamland, bursting at the seams with over 4,000 confectionery and baking ingredients, and it has acquired a reputation as the go-to supplier for chefs and chocolatiers throughout the state and the country.
The Cocoa Outlet’s sells its products via its website, and the digital mystery of how mainland customers find their way to a warehouse on Mamalahoa Highway is a continuing one.
“I ask myself that question all the time,” Farsheed said. “They are searching for a specific type of chocolate we can provide, we have great shipping rates, good prices, and it’s easier to sit at your desk and place an order than to hunt around locally.”
How does one get into the chocolate and pastry ingredient business?
“I was selling produce from our organic farm to hotels,” Farsheed explained, “and kept being prodded by a friend who was importing chocolate to get into this line. I decided why not; the rest is history.”
That history includes double-digit growth from the business’ founding until around 2008 and steady growth at 7 to 8 percent annually since then. And that growth is expected to accelerate in the coming years with the explosion of Hawaii’s cacao industry.
Farsheed is also president of the Kona Cacao Association, the organization that puts on the annual Big Island Chocolate Festival (the 2019 event will be held on April 26-27), and as such he has his finger on the pulse of local industry developments.
“The cacao industry is going to be huge in Hawaii,” Farsheed said. “There are a lot of farmers who have a large number of young trees that will be producing in the next few years, more are coming online, and people approach me all the time wanting to get into this.”
You wouldn’t know this if you relied only on the surveys done by UH’s CTAHR (College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources), which has done studies of the acreage under cultivation for the past several years. The issue with their data is that it significantly under-reports acreage under cultivation because growers just don’t participate in these voluntary surveys. The hundreds of acres under cultivation and the thousands of trees getting ready to bear therefore pretty much operate under the radar as far as the state is concerned. So, the economic value of the crop is officially under-recognized. But not by The Cocoa Outlet.
The Cocoa Outlet is getting ready to capitalize on it and provide an opportunity for local cacao growers with an expansion plan that Farsheed has been thinking about for quite a while and is getting ready to put into action. The problem with a burgeoning crop that needs processing is the availability of a processing facility able to handle sufficient volume.
As far as processing for the commercial market, that facility doesn’t exist in Hawaii at this time. There are small chocolate processing operations but none of them can process beans to the extent and volume necessary for commercial usage. Serving that segment of the market in Hawaii means that Hawaiian-grown beans must be transported to the mainland, processed there, and then sent back to Hawaii. That’s the long way home.
Commercial grade chocolate is a different animal (well, plant) than that chocolate bar you buy at Minit Stop. It has to do with aging and tempering, so the resulting chocolate melts at the right temperature and can be handled to work into candies and baked products. And The Cocoa Outlet is getting ready to produce that.
“My plan is to create a comprehensive production and retail facility,” Farsheed said. “One where the output of many of the local farmers can be consolidated, where wet beans can be dried and aged in a warehouse, and after aging, where a commercial grade product can be produced. Add to that a retail facility where both tourists and locals can buy both commercial and retail grade products, agritourism with a cacao growing area where visitors can learn about this ancient crop, and classroom facilities where culinary instruction in working with chocolate can be provided.”
Move over Hershey, Pennsylvania, Kealakekua is in line to become the new Chocolate City.
Dennis Boyd is the director of the West Hawaii Small Business Development Center, which is funded in part through with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Hawaii at Hilo.